Thursday, April 9, 2009

Creative Differences

NOTE:  This post is one jagoff's opinion, and does not represent the view of the Factory Theater.  OK, carry on.

The recent brouhaha at ATC got me thinking about the power of personalities within a theater company.  Now, I strongly believe that differing sensibilities within the Factory have actually led to some of this company's very best work.  I can cite a bunch of shows off the top of my head where that was the case.  A show often has two or even three strong personalities and voices, all working their collective asses off to put together a great show.  They're not going to gel 100% of the time.  It's never pleasant, and sometimes the ends don't even justify the means.  I won't go into specifics because then I'd have to name names and dates and shows, which would only get me into trouble.

But I've never had a problem with that kind of conflict, because it means that people care.  Sometimes conflict then leads to change where a key person or two leaves the company.  Then it remains to be seen whether that change is a good thing overall.  The Factory has experienced plenty of turnover in its 16+ years, with tons of ups and downs.  I personally think we're on a great roll right now.  We continue to nurture new writing, actors come back time and again to work with us, and our product quality still remains high.  

(To those few who disparage our product, I say only this:  YOU write something, pal.  Otherwise, shut it.)

I obviously don't know jack about what's going on at ATC other than the one Time Out Chicago piece I read yesterday.  But from what I can gather, ATC hired an artistic director to clean up their mess.  It seems he was doing exactly that -- only they didn't like the way he was doing it.  Personally, I think there is an inclusive way to go about change that gives ensemble members a stake in what's happening, as opposed to just firing them.  But that obviously isn't P.J. Paparelli's style, and you have to give him credit for being himself (even if it caused pretty much the entire ensemble to RESIGN).  

Is there anything new about conflict within a theater company?  No.  Is there anything new about an entire ensemble telling its artistic director where to stick it?  I guess (I would love to see some of the back-and-forth e-mails flying around within ATC).  Sometimes, conflict against a single ensemble member can unite a company.  Once that uniting factor goes away, other disagreements can bubble to the surface which may even be worse for the company overall.  What are these 23 former ATC ensemble members going to do, now that they don't have P.J. Paparelli to kick around anymore?  Hopefully they won't turn on each other.

I can remember several ensemble meetings at the Factory that were absolutely charged with tension.  Huge arguments.  Big buildup to said meeting (which usually took place inside a bar the night before).  I would drive to the space for ensemble meetings, just positively filled with dread.  I would envision the fireworks that were sure to go off, and rehearse my responses.  

But here's the thing:  I found that everyone usually felt better after such an "explosive" meeting 99 percent of the time.  Once an issue or disagreement was brought out in the open, face to face, it was like a weight was lifted and the company was better able to move forward.  I saw this time and again at the Factory.  A while back, we had a much-maligned ensemble member resign under pressure to all our faces.  That was one of the gutsier things I ever witnessed in my life.  Then we went out as a company and put together a couple of shows that rank among our very best.   In my opinion.

So a pressure cooker isn't always a bad thing, as long as the quality of shows remains high.  As for Chris Piatt's point about a democratically-run ensemble being unable to operate as a successful business -- well, I respectfully disagree.  I believe successful theater leadership consists of communicating with an ensemble, finding out what they want, and then working to make sure it all happens.  That's been happening here at the Factory more or less since the beginning.  People want to be led, and we've been lucky to have great leadership over the years.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Looking back at the first five years of the Factory, I'm amazed we got anything done at all. The interpersonal tensions were incredibly high during that entire time. As the target of one major upheaval, and the instigator of another, I feel like I can speak from both sides of the issue with some clarity.

Even as we fought, either face-to-face or behind each others' backs at Simon's, we still cranked out sell-out shows, often with the creators of the shows casting the very people with which they had the problems. It was almost a competition between factions of the company at times, trying to out do each other with the next show. Hell, it wasn't almost, it WAS a competition, if some of those conversations I had with people were true and not just booze-fueled boasts.

When it came to Bo Blackburn resigning from the board, I think that marked the day the Factory grew up, or at least reached puberty. When faced with the circumstances, we met, we discussed, we formulated a plan. And to Bo's credit, he handled himself like a professional up to and including his resignation.

Now we were a company that actually took actions to strengthen the company, rather than bitch about it at the bars. The reverberations lasted for longer than we probably anticipated, and ultimately caused a big shift in how the Factory was run. But we were now business people rather than just a group of friends putting on hit shows.

I take issue with the Time-Out article's snide assessment of "artist pals who set up nonprofits to produce plays for themselves to star in". Fuck you, Time Out. Artist run companies are what make Chicago the theater capital of the US. Although I'll agree, Verizon Theater and Sportsdome presents "Wicked" starring Suzanne Sommers and Joan Collins has much more integrity and above-board intentions.

Sean Abley
Factory Theater, 92-97