In the last two weeks, I’ve been attempting to blog about two related events. One was my discovery that preview tickets for mainstage shows at the extensively renovated Vineyard Playhouse now cost $50. The other was the proclamation of the Vineyard Haven Harbor Cultural District in — you guessed it — downtown Vineyard Haven. Bile and snark do not a good blog post make so I’ve been floundering.
Both events are symptoms of “the creative economy,” with which some policy wonks have been much enamored in recent years, not only on Martha’s Vineyard but across the commonwealth. The underlying idea is that the arts are good for business. On the Vineyard, this means that they attract tourist and summer visitors and thus bolster the seasonal economy.
What this does is turn “the arts” — performing arts, visual arts, all kinds of art — into a commodity, something that can be bought and sold and measured on balance sheets, that is valued because of its ability to do this. What does this do to the arts, to our notions of what art is? Hardly anyone is talking publicly about that, at least not on Martha’s Vineyard. Martha’s Vineyard is a theme park: whatever draws paying customers is good, right?
But at the same time — “If not me, who?” It’s another form of the seasonal occupation. Not for nothing is this blog called From the Seasonally Occupied Territories. After working out the snark and bile during many walks in the woods, I got down to the first-personal aspect of it all. Here goes.
Then . . .
I got roped into island theater not long after I arrived as an apprentice year-rounder in the mid-1980s. The late Mary Payne, founder and artistic director of Island Theatre Workshop (ITW), believed every sentient being should be involved in theater. (This included several dogs as well as most humans.) She wouldn’t take no for an answer. “I can’t” was out of the question.
I did PR. I sat in on rehearsals and ran errands. I stage-managed a couple of productions and learned how a show was built, from auditions through rehearsals to opening night. A year or two later, I was a part-time proofreader at the Martha’s Vineyard Times when the features editor said she needed a reviewer for an Apprentice Players — ITW’s youth program — production of As You Like It I’d never reviewed theater, but I knew the play, and I’d reviewed plenty of books and a few concerts over the years. I volunteered — and went on to become the Times‘s main theater reviewer for five years or so.
By the mid-1990s, I was variously involved at the Vineyard Playhouse, stage-managing, acting, serving as a juror for the New England new play competition started by playhouse director Eileen Wilson.
This immersion in theater greatly affected my writing. I wrote three one-acts, all of which have been successfully staged. To this day, in writing fiction I’m often the stage manager, watching the actors onstage and recording their actions in my prompt script. Other times I’m the director, actively blocking the scene till something clicks and the actors take over.
The late ’80s and most of the 1990s were a golden age for Vineyard theater, and for grassroots arts in general, especially the performing arts. This was also the heyday of Wintertide Coffeehouse, in which I was heavily involved from 1986 to 1994.
The Vineyard music scene is still thriving, but grassroots theater is a shadow of its old self. Mary Payne died in 1996; she was only 64. The Vineyard Playhouse struck off in a professional direction. Two creative dynamos left the island — first Yann Montelle and then Bob Dutton. (Yann, last I heard, was working in New Zealand. Bob, after almost two decades working, teaching, and raising a family in Florida, has returned to the Vineyard.) Economic changes have had a big impact: the cost of housing has gone up and up and up, and when you’re working double-time to pay the rent or mortgage, you don’t have much time to volunteer. Theater will eat up all the time and energy you’ve got.
. . . Now
Earlier this month I went to the summer opening at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. When I arrived, a skit was in progress under the big white tent in the courtyard: an excerpt from The Whaleship Essex, which was about to open at the Vineyard Playhouse. I missed the beginning but was very impressed by the actors. I wanted to see the play. The playhouse recently reopened after a two-year, multimillion-dollar renovation. Having acted, staged-managed, and watched dozens of shows in the old space, I was curious about that too.
Tickets to summer mainstage shows at the Vineyard Playhouse are too much for my scrawny budget, but preview nights — in effect, full dress rehearsals that are open to the public before opening night — are traditionally cheaper.
At home later, I went to the Vineyard Playhouse website, chose a seat, filled in all the required blanks, and eventually arrived at the checkout page. There it turned out that preview tickets cost the same as regular tickets: $50. Not possible. I backed out, cancelled my seat reservation, and logged off.
In April I went to see a semi-staged reading of Cymbeline, the latest offering of Shakespeare for the Masses. I’ve become a huge fan of this series, the brainchild of Nicole Galland and Chelsea McCarthy. Shakespeare’s plays are abridged and read by island actors, nontraditionally cast, with additional narration and the occasional footnote provided by Nicki. Admission is free; donations are welcome. I’d happily pony up $5 or $10 to see it.
Shakespeare for the Masses is a throwback to the heyday of Vineyard theater. Officially it’s sponsored by the Vineyard Playhouse, but during the playhouse’s reconstruction, it’s played in various locations, most recently Katharine Cornell Theatre. Before Cymbeline a Vineyard Playhouse board member gave a pep talk about the extensive, almost-complete renovation of the playhouse. Seat and stairs were still available for endowing, he said.
For how much? asked someone in the audience.
$10,000 for a stair and $3,500 for a chair, he said –or maybe it was the other way around. You could feel the interest dissipating. Shakespeare for the Masses does not draw an endowing, which is to say a well-endowed, crowd.
Says the Vineyard Playhouse website: “We believe that theater has the power to transform lives.”
I know from experience that this is true. I also know that my transformation couldn’t have taken place in a world of $50 tickets and a mostly professional theater, or without the dynamic and often visionary leadership that was around in the early 1990s. Says a League of Women Voters motto, “Democracy is not a spectator sport.” Neither are the arts. Once upon a time, “the arts” were part of many Vineyarders’ lives. They still are, though you have to look and listen harder to find them.
“All the world’s a stage,” wrote the Bard. True enough. But by insisting that the arts can and should be a paying proposition, the “creative economy” controls access to that stage and slowly but surely transforms how we think of creativity and the arts. It really does deserve more discussion than it’s been getting.
When this blog was new, almost three years ago, I raised some of these questions in “Whose Arts & Ideas?” They’re still worth addressing. And I still think the graphic is a hoot.
What we need are accessible and well located venues to band together, collaborate, rehearse, and perform our amateur offerings. Music is easy to remain home-spun; rehearse at home and check in at any bar on Circuit Ave for an open mic. Theatre is hard to do non-pro. You need a venue, one located with enough foot traffic to draw an audience.
With the passing of the Wintertide we lost a great space for those “garage start-up groups” that proliferated in the early 90’s.
I do miss all those days . . .
You’re absolutely right that participating in a performance is immeasurably more meaningful than simply witnessing it. And being a performer (let’s include music and dance here, along with theater) makes one a much keener witness to the work of others. Life-changing involvement in an art requires an investment of time (rehearsal, practice, trial and error) that’s undervalued to the same degree that art spectatorship is overvalued. Should there be career artists? Of course. But there are many musicians who’d gladly play for free to an audience made up of fellow musicians who were truly listening. The quality of the attention would be reward enough. Thanks for this thoughtful piece, Susanna!
Career artists, definitely — not just those who are trying to make a living at it, but also those for whom it’s a serious avocation. In theater, first-timers and novices can learn a lot just from sharing the stage with experienced actors. In music, that kind of cross-fertilization happened often at Wintertide, especially during the Singer-Songwriter Retreats that Christine Lavin produced. It’s still happening at Built on Stilts every summer, I think.
I suppose it’s not fair to compare M.V. live theater prices to Broadway but, since you said “Tickets to summer mainstage shows at the Vineyard Playhouse are too much for my scrawny budget,” I’ll chime in with the disconcerting fact that the average ticket there now costs more than $100 (see http://triblive.com/aande/theaterarts/6260271-74/broadway-ticket-average), an increase of 34% over the last five years. Way beyond my means, given that my income did not increase proportionately during that time. One frequently given rationale for this price hike is that live theater is finite — once the run ends, there is no more revenue stream. BUT, in this digital age, why can’t those performances be filmed and later distributed through, for example, PBS? I would be utterly thrilled to pay PBS to let me watch Kenneth Branagh’s and Alex Kingston’s _Macbeth_, since there’s no way I can afford to see it live right now.
The ticket price is a PITA, but that’s not my main point. Where did this idea come from that the arts are something you watch, or use to part tourists from their money? I got to stage-manage a production of Macbeth in the mid-1980s. Could just watching a production be half as powerful? Maybe; maybe not. Martha’s Vineyard has a long tradition of people entertaining each other — mainly because otherwise there was no entertainment, no art-making. It’s still holding on, but this “creative economy” shtick is stomping on its fingers.