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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Ghetto Effect

Posted By on Thu, Aug 23, 2007 at 8:36 AM

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KQED Radio hosts yet another well-intentioned arts discussion. But is anyone listening? By Chloe Veltman

A couple of days ago, KQED's Forum program devoted an hour to issues surrounding small theaters in the Bay Area. Host Michael Krasny and a panel of theater professionals discussed audiences, funding and the future of small theater companies in the region.

The producers had assembled a panel of very intelligent, open-minded artistic directors to talk about the subject. The guests included Kent Nicholson of Crowded Fire, Molly Noble, of Porchlight Theatre, Shotgun Players' Patrick Dooley, and Sean Murphy, artistic director for Renegade Theater Experiment. The only non artistic director invited to speak was Trevor Allen, director of company services for Theatre Bay Area, the local umbrella organization that supports performing arts organizations in the region.

Although the panelists were very eloquent about the highs and lows of creating theater in the Bay Area, the show left me feeling rather embarrassed. The problem was that I felt like no one was listening. At least, no one beyond the narrow confines of the performing arts community in the Bay Area.

It's great that KQED, which tends to be very news focused, organizes these kinds of general discussions around the performing arts. I was particularly impressed, in the case of this program, with the lengths that the producers had gone to include companies from all over the Bay Area, from San Francisco to Marin to Berkeley to San Jose. But these debates, though well-intentioned, usually end up being little more than parochial exercises in insider navel-gazing.

The producers are partly to blame. They probably think that they are fulfilling some kind of community obligation by devoting a show to small theater. Yet they don't seem to be able to think beyond the most obvious structure. You can't just bung a bunch of theater professionals in front of mikes and expect them to create scintillating radio that's going to appeal to anyone beyond the narrow confines of their own community. Krasny also ought to know better. A host as seasoned as he is ought to be able to find ways to steer the discussion beyond tired topics such as the financial difficulties of making theater and diversity issues. At the very least, he ought to find new ways of framing these topics.

One way of giving more thought to what listeners might want to get out of a discussion about small theater in the Bay Area (or indeed any other cultural subject), might be for the producers to take a broader approach to selecting panelists. Artistic directors usually make great thinkers and speakers, but at the end of the day, they are all cut from similar cloth. They all face the same opportunities and challenges. If everyone on a panel has the same job description, the discussion invariably goes around in circles. In the case of the small theater show, it soon started turning in on itself and felt more akin to a group of luvvies kvetching about their jobs over drinks at a pub than material fit for a public, on-air debate.

This clubby feeling was further compounded by the people who called in to make comments. Nearly all of the callers prefigured their calls with lines like "Hi everyone. It's great talking to you all again?" and "I think everyone on this panel knows me well." I half expected one of them to say "By the way, Trevor, you owe me ten bucks."

If I were to create a discussion group about small theater, I would include only one artistic director on the panel. He or she would be joined by a playwright, an actor, a stage manager, a producer, a critic and an ardent theatergoer with no insider experience. The mix would no doubt make for a much more varied and open discussion. It would do a lot to waylay self-ghettoization.

To listen to KQED Forum's small theater program, click h

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Chloe Veltman


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