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October 10, 2008


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Ethan Stanislawski

I'm pretty shocked HTFA was never performed in Chicago. But this may be as much Daisey's fault as Chicago theater's. Jason Zinoman at the New York Times pointed out that it was pretty funny, maybe even cowardly, for Daisey to open a show about regional theater in New York. Of course, he did perform HTFA in front of a national theater director's conference before the Joe's Pub opening, but that the show missed a place as important as Chicago is pretty frustrating.

Kris Vire

From my understanding, HTFA took on a life of its own that Mike and Jean-Michele hadn't anticipated. They premiered it at the Under The Radar festival last January and then took it to Seattle, but it proved so popular in New York that they brought it back to Joe's Pub, followed by the transfer to Barrow Street, before they had to cut it off for already-scheduled engagements of If You See Something.

The more surprising thing to me is that no one had invited Daisey to Chicago before the MCA.

Paul Rekk

I was unable to attend the roundtable because me and D-Ray, amongst many other beauties, were having a DADA write/thought jam session for WNEP's upcoming show.

I was really disappointed when I first found out I was going to be missing it, but, from the sound of things, we took much larger steps towards saving anything just by staying home.

Ick. Sorry, Kris, that kinda blows.

nic dimond

not to sound overly cynical, but based on the topic, venue, and panel, what kind of conversation were you expecting? you mention "a real conversation about what institutional theater looks like from their own perspectives" but how does that conversation happen in any sort of structured way and NOT end up sounding like an HR session? if we want this to be real, shouldnt we be yelling at each other over drinks? seriously, when any adult situation requires hand-raising, what can we expect when it comes to authentic exchange? but then again, its early, and i might be missing the point. kris, was there a specific topic you were looking to crack open? if so, ill meet you at the morseland this eve, and we can get down to brass tacks...
now, more coffee.


Hi Kris, great points. I, too, was disappointed with the Roundatable. But I'm glad you mentioned Jenny Magnus's spiel, which I though was the most valuable part of the evening, because the track she was on (which Halberstam unfortunately didn't follow-up on) was the kind of conversation that I thought the Roundtable would be having - what ARE the alternative organizational models, within regional theater, or without? What makes them thrive or fail? Are they sustainable? Are they replicatable or are they specific to a theatrical community? How do these organizational models impact the work and its creators?


I'm a Chicago actor and attended this rountable with a friend of mine who is as well. Funny, she emailed me the next day with basically the same sentiments and frustrations that are posted here. For example, nice that it was a roundtable, but where are the rest of the Jenny Magnus's, representing small companies that make up a majority of the theater scene here, as well as some comments from actual actors and designers who live and work in this community? I felt like Daisey himself had the only real performer's perspective, and isn't from Chicago. One of my personal favorite moments was when, in response to the idea that actors, even without a living wage, get the benefit of applause at the end of an evening's work, "yes, but staff gets other benefits such as having a family and health insurance." I wish the conversation had continued to follow the track it started on and had been expanded to include some of the audience. Perhaps that would have made the table a bit more "round."


The model I'll describe below is one I feel like I've heard described or suggested elsewhere. Here goes:

Everyone in a company wears multiple hats- an ensemble member with the company could be acting in the plays but also doubles as admin, or an arts educator, grant writer, whatever. Nobody in the collective is asked to do only administration, and nobody in the collective is allowed to just see to the arts side of things- everyone has a specific role to play on both the business and artistic ends and must pull their weight. This part of it is the easy part- it's how most small ensemble based companies here in town already operate anyway. Here's the kicker: each member of the collective draws a salary. A real (albeit modest) salary- somewhere in the thirties, or maaaaybe high twenties (not easy to live on that in Chicago per se, but feasible). Everyone in the collective counts as a staff member and is on a group health plan.

Here's where the difficult, or just plain fantasy-based part of this model comes in: ideally, these salaries and other company expenses would be funded by a trust or foundation established for that purpose, designed so that the principal wouldn't be depleted; i.e. the existence of the organization would depend not at all on ticket sales; a fact that would allow ticket prices to be much lower than currently- I'm thinking something like a top price of somewhere between $5 and $10, or perhaps even free. Any ticket revenue would go towards strengthening the trust, or additional arts programming.

I guess what I'm suggesting is that if a theatre company is large enough, and has a strong enough foundation, it should start doing what some of the universities with enormous foundations are doing- give the "students" a break on tuition. In this analogy the 'students' are both the artists and audience members. It seems to me the obstacle is that for it to work you need to assemble boatloads of capital up front- unless you have an extremely loaded benefactor it would be something you'd have to aggressively fundraise towards for years and years. Is this a reasonable goal to fundraise towards? Or is this just a wistful fantasy with no practical chance of being workable? Another obstacle is that in the meantime, a company would still need to do work using a more conventional business model, I think. Finally, the group of people in the ensemble would have to be very small (this working for a group larger than ten strikes me as impossible), get along well with each other and be deeply committed to the endeavor. It would place limitations on some of the material that could be chosen, and it would make for a pretty insular group of artists, certainly. But if (and it's a ginormous if, I grant you) the capital can be assembled, why not allocate it that way?

Has this model been tried before by anybody? I've wondered if this model, or something like it, is the intended endgame for some of the growing companies here in town.

Paul Rekk

The benefit of applause??

Did someone really have the gall to say that?

Mike Daisey

"I'm pretty shocked HTFA was never performed in Chicago. But this may be as much Daisey's fault as Chicago theater's."

Just because it hasn't played here yet doesn't mean it can't--and I do not control what institutions invite us to perform in their spaces in Chicago. We're now booked to bring it to DC, and hoping for LA to work out next year, and we may be able to add Chicago to that list if logistics work out.


Kris Vire

Nic, my attempted point was that a roundtable roster more like the ones at Joe's Pub would have been preferable to the one we had Tuesday night. Even if it had been restricted to artistic directors, the panel would have better represented the realities of Chicago theater if they'd added say, you, Jen Ellison, Nate Allen, Krissy Vanderwarker and Jason Kae to back up Jenny's perspective.

I'll gladly yell at you over drinks at the Morseland anytime (seriously, email me). But the "groundlings" of our theater scene deserve to have their concerns discussed not just there (and the Konak and the Four Moon) but in the hoity-toity arenas too. And I haven't seen Martha or Halberstam at the theater bars lately.

nic dimond

@md - i seem to recall some press quoting you as saying something along the lines of "when it comes to chicago, you want to wait for the right invitation." i'm curious, from the eyes of a non-chicagoan, what is the "right" invitation? is it related to $? is it related to brand prominence? is it just timing?

seeing as institutionalization is one of your big themes, and that you seem to be calling out institutional arts organizations (what does that really mean, is it just $ stability?) as failing america, does it feel at all strange that you seem to be waiting for invites from those places? i mean, its understandable, as $ makes the world go round, and touring isnt cheap, but i hope you can understand a little confusion from a city thats famous for most of the theatre artists not earn our living from our art.

i guess what i really want to know, and im very sorry that i missed the panel, but in your opinion, how can theatre right itself and stop failing america? does it really have to do with institutionalization? or maybe, just maybe, could it be the exact opposite?

Mike Daisey

I believe the quote you're referring to was Chris Jones, and it wasn't about HTFA--it was just about coming to Chicago. What I said to him is that it's better to be invited to participate in a community than to shoulder one's way in, which is one of the reasons we'd never performed in Chicago before--no one had asked us, on any level. The few times it had come up people didn't have the resources to make anything work out well, so we waited, but I don't believe there were very many offers over the years--I think most folks who run theaters are busy putting up their own shows, which is great, and so it takes awhile.

As for explanations of what I'm about with regard to theater, there's plenty of writing on the web that covers that...and I hope to bring HOW THEATER FAILED AMERICA to Chicago, and that will serve as my primary statement on that state of affairs.


nic dimond

right on, thanks for the answer, mike. if HTFA does indeed make it to town, i look forward to understanding your message a bit more. i hope your time in chicago has been great, and best of luck at The Public!

Krissy Vanderwarker

Kris - I say we do the panel that you suggest. I'm totally down. Name the time and place.

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  • Kris Vire
    I write about theater for Time Out Chicago. I write more about it here.

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