Volume 24, Number 2 (1993) THEATER

A Proposal and an Alarum
Toward Big Cheap Theater
by Erik Ehn

It's not that there's not enough good work out there; there's not enough out there out there. Experimental theaters, geographically and financially isolated from one another, struggle separately when they could be struggling together -- not in less pain, perhaps, but in a common and revivifying pain. Strong progressive companies start from scratch again and again, only to disband in frustration on the same scratch plain. We need to share the work -- the labor and the ways of laboring. We need to distribute the consciences. We want an engine, outside the marketplace, built low enough to the ground and out of such measly materials that repairs are worked in a wink.

The Need

We are learning again that the inside can't survive without the outside. In the case of theater, the inside is a set of retail outfits, whose efforts at cooperation are designed to abet individualism first. In many such organizations, the staff's tacit hope is for a middle-class life, a decent wage. I am defining middle class as that layer of earners whose passions to run from poverty and towards wealth cross at an "x" and mark a stasis: the population that runs in place. Cynically, it is the hamster that powers the market's wheel; better, it is capitalism's mandala: energy in a fixed pattern.

There is room for the new in a middle-class aesthetic, but every new thing must be new in roughly the same way. Institutions are built on a faith in a resting place, in safety, in a stable home as a happy place for art. These wants are to be celebrated; they're Chekhovian: they're comic and tragic at the same time, and can allow much of consequence to take place. Many regional theaters have long histories of remarkable work. They have initiated and supported the careers of a number of out-of-bounds artists. But institutions on the inside have trouble making mistakes. Since continuance and accountability are built into their missions, they come to crisis when the world stops or skips. Nature, however, is not continuous and is never accountable. Institutions are stuck on money and time: money and time can allow art to happen; they cannot cause art. Larger theaters that have lost grip of their spirits allow art, without causing it. They are liberal, static, and sad.

America has applied its ingenuity to theater and has found its masterpiece. This American masterpiece is the means of selecting masterpieces. Theater institutions have chosen a range of themes, a degree of physical intensity, a measure of topical relevance; they have dropped a ceiling on invention. We can move Ibsen, we can move Shaw, we can even move the occasional anomaly. America's signal achievement is accessible theater, affordably priced, driven by advertising (reviews included), and sustained by name recognition (where "anomaly" is also a name).

Our way of play-showing is mastering our play-makers. When talk is about survival instead of subversion, when managers and boards convene meetings independently of artists (and hold authority over artists), the soul of a theater is effectively divided. The experiment has stopped.


To repair and revivify itself, the inside refers to the outside. Outside is poverty and wealth. The wealthy are not financially invincible, but they are not at an "x"-marks-the-spot; they have superior freedom of movement, and their independence needs no detailing.

It would take too much ink to discuss the values that partner, but don't relieve, the terrors of de facto poverty: The poor are concentrated into a caste that is relentlessly damped, fucked-with, shredded, destroyed; escape from this caste is rare and tentative. The merits of voluntary poverty (in Dorothy Day's sense, in Tolstoy's sense) are clearer. I know some good poor theaters, but I know more good broke ones; the latter are without money by design; they pursue a spiritual poverty by exploring broke-ness as a value -- a freedom, a witness.

I don't know how to get or stay rich. I have some thoughts on how to get and stay broke, and reasons for settling there.

Theaters that choose to operate under radar, below the market -- the pushcart robbers, the fools for God's sake, the creeps, the busted alchemists, the trolls -- have crisis, not continuance, built into their missions. They can stop, and they can move ahead.

Theaters outside the circle are phenomenal, not institutional. They exist from incarnation to incarnation; they are in and out of chaos.

Light and Air

While it's always necessary to look to the rich and beg a measure of their strength, it's at least equally important to look tot he poor for their real, concrete, and enduring gifts. As often as we theater artists think about what we require, we should consider what we can give away; when we demonstrate the moral usefulness of theater, we represent resources the rich covet. The rich want to come begging to us. It's spatially impossible for money to follow you if you're reaching towards it; better to go where the money isn't, and lure it after you.

Theater is radically free -- free in terms of expressive rights, and free in the sense of no money. The essential transaction -- a gesture traded for a community's response --happens in light and air, in any light, in any air. We choose to put ourselves in spaces that cost us, for the privilege of making more considered and complex gestures towards larger responses. The cost of theater is a penalty we pay for living prior to fellowship. We will always be selling a commodity that is ideally not a commodity and not for sale.

Theater is having trouble communicating its purpose to a result-oriented crowd. Who is materially better on account of the theater? What new resources are uncovered by the theater? When your pipes are busted, you can go to the library and check out a book -- libraries are funded and free. When your ethics are busted, you can go to the theater. How do we make this known?

Build a national theater from a foundation of ethics, of assembly, of no-money. Call together artistically independent theaters, make their experiments in poetry and reproach better known to one another and the country. I believe strongly in the loaves and fishes economic model: when you gather those who have nothing, on the assumption that this gathering of the incomplete is sufficient, then you will discover that you have all you need, materially. It was made plain to me in a sermon: even without a "magical" division of fish, when you tell a crowd who understands hunger and interdependence that there is only enough for some, others in the crowd will come forward with their very last resource. There are countless cases where the just and needy gather and die; there are as many cases where the just and needy gather and, so, survive. The gathering is the claim of inheritance.

Nitty-Gritty: An Art Workers' Hostelry

The old guard is known to the nation. It is insulated from change. Rather than try to reform the hold, secure a national reputation for the new. Suppose an Art Workers' Hostelry.

Understanding that the first resources are will and sensibility, the AWH is constituted to facilitate the sharing of labor. AWH is a national service organization that provides art exchanges between small non-profit theaters. These exchanges include observerships, but are focused on transfers of productions, and seed teams of artists travelling to restage productions in cooperation with local groups.

  • To bring longer life and wider audiences to experimental new work.
  • To further the development of a critical vocabulary responsive to new work.
  • To foster collaboration between like-minded and often marginalized companies, with the aim of creating an organic national repertory company for experimental theater.

    Food, shelter, and transportation for visiting artists. Communications between member theaters -- subsidizing phones and mailings, defraying costs of script reproduction, underwriting a video library with tapes of performances from each member theater.

    Financial responsibility for staging and publicizing shows in AWH repertory rests with individual companies. AWH is not artistically prospective; choice of shows to send and accept also rests with individual companies.


    Officers of AWH (drawn form the staffs of member theaters) raise funds nationally from the government, foundations, and individuals. But priority is given to grassroots fundraising done locally under the AWH umbrella. Barter is better than money (Tolstoy). In-kind contributions of food, shelter, and transportation are preferred to cash; the trade of art for goods (vs. art for money) promotes greater artist-community intimacy, and a clearer sense of peer status on both sides.


    Once facilitator; a steering committee with a representative from each member theater; a board with 50% artist representation. The rest of the structure (volunteer coordinators, fund raisers) abides in the separate theaters as they already exist.

    Organizational flow charts are traditionally pyramid-shaped, with power dropping down from a single point, through descending, multiplying, and discrete compartments. There is lately a reformed practice that charts organizations as sets of overlapping circles. In such a view, AWH places artists at the center. The board is the first circle out, connecting with artists, but not obscuring them. The board is made up of those people who can help make art happen, but are not necessarily artists themselves. They have other lives, and their otherness is their gift. Board members are interns: they serve AWH on a volunteer basis and are accountable to the steering committee. The audience (committed receivers, signal boosters, re-broadcasters) is the larger circle. It includes the board and the artists but lacks sufficient specific gravity to disproportionately influence inner workings.

    The facilitator serves as the contact point, seeks out donations, is the mission mnemonic who draws attention to root principles in matters of dispute, helps find resources on a scale beyond the local theater. The facilitator serves for two years and may be, probably should be, more than one person. The gadfly burdens shouldn't be split apart from the administrative burdens, but the overall load can be divided.

  • a. Not-for-profit.
  • b. 150 seats or under.
  • c. Committed to experimental work (new plays, multidiscipline collaborations, new approaches to established works).
  • d. Committed to community outreach.
  • e. Committed to hosting at least one visiting company, and to sending at least one team of artists per year.
  • f. Membership- vs. subscriber-based (subscribers own theaters; theaters are in league with members).

    Theater is social, theater serves the society it makes, and theater naturally serves the wider society. But to demonstrate the usefulness of theater by broadening its metaphor, and to gain access and powers available to community groups, cooperating with other meat-market organizations is encourages.

    For example, visiting artists could get room and board through local service organizations by providing labor in free kitchens, shelters, or educational programs.

    I like Helen and Scott Nearing's 4/4/4 division of daily labor: four hours for private work, four hours for the farm, and four hours for the greater community. Translating this for the theaters: four hours for writing/research/memorization; four hours for rehearsal; four hours for performance, teaching, or other forms of services.

  • Intersection (San Francisco)
  • Sledgehammer (San Diego)
  • Annex (Seattle)
  • Val Day's place in Tampa
  • BACA (Brooklyn)
  • Undermain (Dallas)
  • Theatreworks (Tulsa)
  • Woolly Mammoth (Washington, DC)
  • Mixed Blood (Minneapolis)
  • Seven Stages (Atlanta)
  • Cucaracha (Manhattan)

    The problem with the Federal Theatre Project was that it was federal. The aesthetic was grassroots, but the funding was from the top down. AWH is Big and Cheap -- big because its theater is unalloyed, and because to remain cheap it has to involve the good will of a huge circle of collaborators. Some of the 60s groups are exemplary, but a number have become rugged individualist. AWH is meant to work like Viking society at its best -- as a democratic union of clans and cults. The aesthetic models are various; the structural models are more political: the Greens, ancient and modern; the Wobblies; the Homeless Union in Oakland; the Tenderloin Reflection and Education Center in San Francisco. (A lot of my lingo is old left; I don't care. The language was never given its day anyhow.)

    E.G. --:

    A proposal deadline comes around. Member theaters lay out what shows they want to send, and where. Maybe everything schedules out perfectly by accident, but maybe there's a glut. Everybody might want to go to Tampa in the winter, for example. It cold be that I've made a play at Intersection that I want to send to BACA; it's got a Mason in it though, and BACA's just done a bunch of plays al about the Masons. Steering committee gets together by phone and tries to sort it out. Turns out that Theatreworks in Tulsa is dying to get to SF and they haven't done a Mason play in a while. I haven't been to Tulsa since my sister's wedding. A trade is arranged -- a team of three goes to Tulsa, a team of six goes to San Francisco. A theater can't send a show without receiving one; the trade doesn't have to be between the same two theaters (Intersection could end up sending to Theatreworks, while Theatreworks sends to Annex). AWH has foraged frequent-flyer miles plus ticket donations from some airlines; everybody flies for free. Some friends of Intersection offer couches, but there's no free board this time around without sweat-equity at St. Anthony's soup kitchen. Two guests have burnt out on kitchens and decide to pay their own way; four others decide to go for it. Out in Tulsa, I work wit a local sculptor on a new set; two of the five parts in the play are cast locally. We all participate in a theater-arts workshop organized by the Tulsa Indian Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse. A Theatreworks board intern has an in with the hotel commission; the SF team sleeps two-to-a-room in a nice place for two weeks; in a dorm room at TU for the third and final week. The Intersection project culminates in an open rehearsal for free for Theatreworks members, and Theatreworks mounts a full production.

    All this is hypothetical. All possibilities hang in a saturated solution ready to precipitate.

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