I’m interested in how theaters work. As someone who runs a small theater company and doesn’t plan on growing my organization into a large institution, I’m excited whenever anyone starts bringing up alternatives to the ways non-profit theaters have been structured for the last half-century.
The LORT model (my nickname for the way of operations at organizations like those belonging to the League of Resident Theatres) is sort of like that old Dennis Miller joke: "Why do Eskimos eat so much blubber? Because it is the only f-ing thing at the Arctic buffet."
So, if you are an eager, young go-getter, fresh out of college and want to start your own theater company, this one-size-fits-all paradigm is about the only template to look at. The trouble lies in the fact that this system is breaking down. The world is changing more rapidly than ever and theater, that old warhorse, is still moving at its usual slow pace.
So, what to do?
A very enthusiastic group of artists tackling this problem head on.
I met the members of the Transcendence Theatre Company at WaterTower Theatre’s Out of the Loop Fringe Festival at the beginning of March, at monologist Mike Daisey’s show How Theater Failed America. I stuck around for the panel discussion afterwards (like I said, this sort of stuff interests me). At the end of the evening, walking out to the parking lot, I met Brad Surowsky, who introduced me to his wife Amy Miller and the rest of the Transcendence gang.
Brad, Amy and four others (and a dog) make up Transcendence Theatre Company. They are a refreshing, energetic, intelligent bunch who seem to have their heads on straight and no fear of tackling big questions.
Transcendence Theatre Company is a non-profit theater dedicated to the integration of health and wellness into the arts, and at the time of this writing, the members of this group are halfway through Project Knowledge, a two-month cross-country research tour spanning March and April 2010. Their goal: To assess the health of artists and institutions in the United States. The tour includes discussions with an impressive list of over 25 major theaters, 10 universities and dozens of artistic directors, arts advocates, resident theatre pioneers, educators and community members throughout the country.
Here in Dallas they did a pilgrimage to Margo Jones’s old theatre building in Fair Park, and chatted with TheaterJones co-founder Mark Lowry about the DFW theatre scene, and attended all five of Mike Daisey's shows at Out of the Loop. (Above is a quick video Mark shot with Amy, who explains the company's tour. You can also view other videos on TTC's YouTube channel, but this one gives a good overview of Project Knowledge.)
For the next month the company will continue travelling the country in two RVs and holding critical dialogues and discussion groups with some of the most important voices in theater today. These key figures, including Polly Carl of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Jill Dolan at Princeton University and Broadway producer and entrepreneur Ken Davenport, have signed on to participate in so-called "Transcendence Talks." Topics range in subject and include among many, the challenges of modern theatre, the effects of ensemble collaboration within a community and out-of-the-box thinking with regard to theatrical business models and creativity. The group even plans to host a discussion with actors, reminiscent of the A Chorus Line talks, in between meetings in New York City.
Along the way, the group is also surveying local community members in all 40 cities at gas stations, coffee houses, restaurants and elsewhere. They will be asking what opinions, if any, they have of the theater, and will engage them in conversations regarding why they may or may not feel that the theater is an integral part of their lives.
The group plans to use this research to create a more vibrant theater—what they are calling a "new holistic model"—and then share that discovery with the world to promulgate a revitalized sense of need for art as a fundamental part of life.
Artistic Director, Amy Miller, a veteran of commercial work and Broadway theatre (she performed in the Broadway and national touring companies of 42nd Street) recently agreed to be interviewed for TheaterJones.com via email and relay, in her own words, the important work Transcendence is exploring.
Brad McEntire: What is the primary mission of Transcendence Theatre Company?
Amy Miller: The dictionary definition of "Transcendence" is 'excelling or surpassing or going beyond the usual limits.' Our company is in its earliest developmental stages so our mission will evolve overtime. The Transcendence Theatre Company is on a mission to integrate health and wellness into the arts. We are dedicated to the development of a holistic technique and theatrical model for the performing arts focused on the well-being of artists, groups of artists and the communities they serve. We are also on a mission to create experiences in and out of the theater that take life and art to new levels of unbelievable brilliance. Our company is in its earliest developmental stages, but even at this time, we are confident that what we are working towards will have a profound impact on our culture and society.
What spurred this idea for Transcendence Theatre? Did something build to a head?
There were many, many reasons why our company was founded. On a personal note, the idea actually grew out of the realization that my career in the arts was placing an enormous amount of unhealthy stress on my body, mind and human spirit. After a great deal of soul searching, I also discovered that my mindset as an artist was focused more on my ability to book work and rise up the ladder of success, verses actually creating theater that moved people's lives, brought communities together and affected positive change within society. I recognized that I was not the only artist struggling with these unhealthy issues and I felt very strongly that the addition of health into an artist’s training could make an enormous impact on the lives of artists' and their ability to serve our youth, communities and our world. Out of all these realizations, the idea for a theater company came into play. We wanted to unite health with art in order to produce work that could move communities in a powerful way. We needed to experiment on our ideas, so our company actually started with an experiment called "The Transcendence Artist Project" at The Gertrude Pearlman Theatre in Punta Banda, Mexico. It was an incredible success and that has led us to the next phase of our journey.
Health and wellness seem to play a big part in your work and aims. Tell us about the importance of this specifically to Transcendence Theatre’s goals.
Health and wellness provides a strong foundation for all of our work and aims. We are very passionate about the integration of health into the arts because we feel it is integral (and often a missing link!) in the development of artists, groups of artists, and the communities they serve. When we talk about health and wellness, we are not just speaking about eating right and exercising. It is so much more than that. Our company has been exploring the importance of positive mindsets for individuals and healthier ways for an ensemble to communicate within the creative process. We also have been pushing the boundaries in terms of establishing a healthy relationship between artists and audiences. Our discoveries in Mexico proved to us that healthy changes in the mindset and training of the individual artist has a vital impact on both the success of a theatre group and it's impact on the community it serves. In order to build upon our work in Mexico and continue the development of our holistic technique, we must build a healthy work environment to support our art. That is the reason why we are on our current project surveying the health of theatre artists and institutions. We truly feel that the development of our technique and model will make a positive and healthy impact on American theater. In the future, we look forward to sharing our technique through educational tools and classes. And we have high hopes that our model could offer another option to those pursuing livelihoods in the theater.
From your Web site and YouTube videos I am intrigued how your group is taking the concept of Theatre beyond its narrow—and commonly assumed—role of “doing shows.” For you, Theatre is not only synonymous with productions. You genuinely seem to want to get to the heart of the community you serve (be it a retirement town in Mexico, an orphanage or the whole American Regional Theatre scene). How do you see a theatre company’s role in the social and cultural landscape of a community?
We definitely feel that theater's power goes way beyond just "doing shows." Shakespeare said it the best: "All the world's a stage." As a company we are aiming to create transcendent experiences on stage and off. We are aiming to truly inspire people through our art and through how we live our lives. We view theatre as a way to incite human connection. Within the social and cultural landscape of a community, our goal as a company is to reach out to the community, beyond the stage, to share in their lives, interests and culture. Through this integration, the theatre becomes more of a community center and a safe place for people to participate in anything from theatrical productions to candid discussions concerning community life.
Of particular interest to me is how you’ve set your sights on exploring alternatives to the usual LORT paradigm of how theaters in this country operate, grow and institutionalize. Young people come out of schools these days and the only roadmap they are presented with to starting and growing a theater leads them down the road to become, I don’t know, like, Steppenwolf in Chicago—501(c)3 status, permanent space, subscriptions, slots, seasons, etc. Nothing wrong with that, but it is the only path set out. Anything else is uncharted territory. How are you at Transcendence looking to get past this one-size-fits-all approach to producing nonprofit theatre in America?
This subject is certainly one of the more challenging subjects of our tour, but an integral part to our notion of reaching a healthier theater in America. The vast majority and almost the entirety of all theater education programs direct the attentions of their courses toward one of two things: A career in NYC, L.A. or Chicago (or as theater blogger and UNC Asheville professor Scott Walters creatively coined, "Nylachi"), or a rigorous schedule of artistic development. Either way, the model of theater is almost never addressed and the history of how we got to our predominantly non-profit model structure is usually ignored. It seems that artists are simply trained to dismiss the realities of the business of theater as irrelevant to their work. This leaves the artist not only unaware that there might be another way, but without the resources or history to learn from the past and come up with creative solutions for the future.
Our exploration of a new model is the basis of this entire tour, so that is essentially the answer to your question "how have we set our sights on exploring alternatives to the usual LORT paradigm?" By uniting the multitude of voices advocating change in theater, we are taking those proactive steps needed to develop an alternative. We are also making ourselves aware as a company of the steps already taken by our forefathers—from Margo Jones to Harold Clurman—to see where their visions made history and to continue the unrealized dreams of their careers.
Additionally, our interviews so far have already confirmed that there is an enormous undercurrent of thought throughout American theater that feels strongly about the need for other options. This has reinvigorated our passion and given us validation for many of the ideas we have had for a new, healthier model. While it's too early to conclusively say "this is the answer!," we know that the brainstorming has given us many paths to explore. Some key ideas, however, that we seem to be coming back to are the need for theater to speak to a new generation, serve a larger role in community and break away from the crutch of grants, foundations and charity.
Do you find you are meeting or will meet with any resistance from the theater community about implementing an alternative paradigm? Audiences, critics, administrators and theater artists themselves speak from a common vocabulary based on the LORT model. The assumption that a theater—any theater—wants to grow into an institution is pretty prevalent. Has this been an issue, and if so, how are you handling it?
We actually have been receiving an incredible amount of support for our endeavors. We have found that everyone is excited about our efforts towards brainstorming the possibility of healthier model. As with any new idea, there will always be resistance. But we have found that so many people are voicing change that they are intrigued and excited by our efforts.
Lastly, what are your plans after the Project Knowledge road trip and how can we find out more about Transcendence?
After the completion of "Project Knowledge" we will assess all of the discoveries and come up with the plans for our model. We will then start the process of finding a permanent location for our company to implement our ideas. This, of course, will take time, but we have high hopes that our first season will be here before we know it! You can find out more about our company by visiting www.transcendencetheatre.org and www.ttctour.com.
►Brad McEntire is the founding Artistic Director of Audacity Theatre Lab
In the cover photo, from left: Robert Petrarca, Stephan Stubbins, Brad Surosky, Leah Sprecher, Amy Miller, Mark Lowry and Randi Kaye. Lowry met the six members of Transcendence on March 8, 2010, at the Magnolia Lounge, the building in Fair Park where Margo Jones started the regional theater movement.