Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Declaration of Independence

Marissa Skudlarek says “no thank you” to the gilded cage.

I don’t know about you, but ever since the Supreme Court ruled on McCutcheon vs. FEC earlier this month, I’ve been getting about an email a day from liberal groups asking me to protest the ruling, which strikes down limitations on campaign donations and therefore, further opens our political process to the influence of super-wealthy donors.

Lately, I’ve also been reading article after article about the rise of income inequality and the increasing corporatization of all facets of our life. The prediction seems to be that we are entering a new Gilded Age, where life is easy for the privileged few but becomes increasingly miserable for average folks.

In the face of all this, an anti-corporate sentiment is starting to take root among liberal-leaning young people. There has always been an anti-corporate strain among leftists, but it used to seem like a scary, fringe movement (e.g. the anarchists smashing windows at the Seattle WTO protests in 1999). I am not a radical or an anarchist. I probably come off as a nice girl who likes to have nice things. But I would like those nice things to be produced and distributed equitably, and for there to be competition in the marketplace rather than corporate monopolies, and for the money I spend to go to small-business owners rather than corporate coffers. Laugh if you want to at the hipster subculture that fetishizes anything “artisanal” or “handcrafted,” but also acknowledge that buying from independent producers is, in a way, an act of political protest.

So what does this have to do with theater? Well, in this political climate, it strikes me that one of the best arguments we independent theater-makers have for our work is just that: we are independent. We talk a lot these days about how to distinguish theater from other entertainment options that are perhaps cheaper or more convenient. Such discussions often focus on the fact that theater is a live event rather than a recorded one, but I don’t know if this argument actually has much traction with audiences. It seems to me that a stronger argument would be that independent theater is not beholden to any corporate overlord; no marketing executives or focus groups influence the work we present; the money you give us goes directly to artists in your community.

This is not a plea for independent theater to present more plays with an overtly anti-corporate agenda. I do have a soft spot for ’30s-style agitprop, but one San Francisco Mime Troupe per city is enough. I tend to prefer plays about complex characters and situations, not plays that shout out their support for a particular political viewpoint. Instead, I am arguing that the mere fact of independent theater’s existence — the fact that we are making art outside of the corporate media who control so much of the conversation — should be used to our advantage.

Think of all of the slogans we could build around this marketing angle. “We tell the stories that The Man doesn’t want you to hear.” “100% locally grown and crafted.” “Netflix wants your personal data. We want your personal well-being.” “You hate Amazon, you hate Wal-Mart, you hate Monsanto — so why do you love Broadway?”

Again, you can laugh at the artisanal-hipster movement, but it’s increased the dignity and the visibility of such formerly humble trades as farming, bartending, and woodcarving. And you can joke that hipsters want to move us toward an idealized version of the 1890s, but this “new gilded age” talk suggests that all of the worst aspects of the 1890s are coming back. If we have to retrogress to the late nineteenth century, in other words, let’s not bring back the parts of it that have to do with racism, sexism, and inequality. Instead, bring on the small-batch distilleries, hand-knitted scarves, and widespread theatergoing.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. She doesn’t really consider herself a hipster, but she did grow up in Portland, Oregon. For more, visit marissabidilla.blogspot.com or Twitter @MarissaSkud.

Hi-Ho The Glamorous Life: Community Theater vs. Indie Theater

Marissa Skudlarek is back and attempts to tackle that mixture of love-hate, pride-frustration, glory-despair that characterizes a life in the Indie Theater world. By the way, this is our 200th post! Hurray!

At my office, outside of my cubicle, I’ve hung a folder containing postcards that advertise the 2012 San Francisco Olympians Festival, along with a colorful sign that says “Like Theater? Take a postcard and talk to me!”

Last week, one of my co-workers took me up on that offer. “Oh, I see what this is, it’s community theater,” she said.

Indie theater,” I said pointedly.

“You’re like my sister-in-law, she does community theater. She’s going to be in Lend Me a Tenor. Now you, what role are you playing in this?”

I’m used to correcting people who assume that I’m an actor, not a playwright. But I’m not as skilled at explaining how I see a big difference between indie theater and community theater, and therefore I embrace the former term and recoil from the latter. Everything I could think to say sounded dismissive of my co-worker’s sister-in-law and the work that she does.

I try to be a kind, understanding, positive person. I do not want to be an intellectual snob who heaps reflexive scorn upon the community theaters of this world, which, after all, provide millions of Americans with their only exposure to live theater. We must remember that amateurs are thus called because they do what they do out of love (amo, amas, amat), and in the case of community theater, they love both the art and the community. I myself, as a child, spent lots of time at a community theater that did Crazy for You and The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, and I still value those memories.

But still, the two terms have different associations in my mind, and probably yours as well. Indie theater is Kickstarter campaigns and “devised movement work” and epater les bourgeois; community theater is… well, it’s Lend Me a Tenor. Which is a work of pure farce, intentionally no more than an after-dinner entertainment. It’s old-fashioned and nostalgic: written in the 1980s, in a style that imitates the boulevard farces of the 1930s. Examine it more closely and you’ll see it promotes some problematic racial and sexual attitudes: the two female leads spend the play running around in their underwear, and the entire plot is based on the idea that if two white men are both wearing blackface, it’s impossible to tell them apart.

So maybe it’s all right to scorn Lend Me a Tenor because it’s just not the kind of play that I think needs to be produced all over America. But then how do I do that without scorning the theaters that produce Lend Me a Tenor or the audiences who enjoy it? It’s a form of hating the sin and loving the sinner. Which is itself a problematic attitude.

And maybe, by drawing a distinction between “indie theater” and “community theater,” I’m only fooling myself – maybe we all are. By and large, we indie-theater folks are not getting paid, and we do it out of love. Indie-theater productions can be clumsy and cheap; they can be devoid of intellectual content; they can promote sexist or racist attitudes just as bad as those of Lend Me a Tenor. To an outside observer like my co-worker, any theater made by non-professionals is community theater, and all our protests that we do “indie theater” just make us look like we’re up on an unjustified high horse. We use the term “indie” because it makes us sound cool and alternative and hipster-ish. (And if you’re Stuart Bousel, you spell it “indy” so that it also makes you think of Indiana Jones, the coolest archaeology nerd ever.) In other words, we feel the need to distinguish ourselves from those rubes who parade across the stages of community theaters in small-town America.  But what if we weren’t so concerned with looking cool? What if, instead, we focused more on forging an honest connection with our audiences — dare I say it, with our community?

So I’m working on feeling a kinship to other practitioners of my artform, rather than drawing distinctions between myself and them. Today, Halloween, I wore a costume to work – a suffragette outfit that I pulled together out of vintage finds, craft-store supplies, and my own closet. In the mailroom, I ran into the co-worker with the Lend Me a Tenor sister-in-law, the one who thinks that what I do is community theater.

“Did you get that out of your costume closet?” she asked upon seeing my outfit.

“Well, I had some of the items already, but I had to get the skirt at a thrift store—”

“I thought you would’ve borrowed it from the costume closet at your theater.”

“Well, we don’t really have a costume closet. It’s indie theater. We rent space. We don’t have our own facility.”

“Really. You know my sister-in-law, the one who does community theater? They have a costume closet. Great big one. All kinds of clothes… plus old trunks, suitcases…”

“I’m sure that’s lovely,” I said, and meant it with all my heart. “But we don’t have that luxury.”

And just like that, community theater didn’t sound so bad after all.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. In this community we call the World Wide Web, you can find her at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @marissaskud.