Ron Vawter

Here are some of my favorite words about performing, by the late Ron Vawter, in conversation with the current Tim Etchells:

Tim Etchells: What's the pleasure of performing for you?

Ron Vawter: I think it's the concentration of...people on stage - like I'm suspended in this very powerful force-field and I'm sort of riding it like a rodeo. It's exhilarating.

Wait. I know what it's like. It's exactly like surfboarding and you've got this board which is your character or the play that you're doing and you're riding these waves coming at you from the audience and from the play itself. Of course when you surfboard you're extraordinarily sensitive ot the motion of those waves and of course you know I'm a show off, I'm an actor, so, I try to do little tricks - zip into the water, go across the wave and move up on the board, move down on the board. As far as the energy feels that's exactly what it's like. And I've learned how to ride the waves. I've done it a long time you know and I've learned the little tricks of the waves and the back currents and how to stay up. Sometimes I really feel like quite a champion surfboarder...

Tim Etchells: Very much...

Ron Vawter: And sometimes I fall flat on my face in the water. That's the risk of surfboarding.

--From the book Certain Fragments.


Less with more, part 1

Lately, when I teach workshops, talk to artists and think about my own career as a playwright and performer, I have been using the phrase “Do less with more,” as a counter to the crisis mode that seems embedded in much of the art production I see around me. I’ve been writing about this in other forums – most recently with Collective Arts Think Tank - but I want to start using this blog as a clearinghouse for all of what I mean on the subject.

I’ll be posting about this here roughly once a month. My thoughts are informed by my experience as a playwright, actor, ERS company member, teacher and arts advocate. I absolutely invite your challenges, support, comments, questions and pies. I’m going to talk most about live performance, because that’s where I work, but it can often apply to visual art and film as well.

The Six Frustrations

I started saying Do Less With More out of a few frustrations:

1. The opposite refrain: “Do more with less,” which I hear from artists, administrators, venues, and funders alike, constantly, started to bug me because I don’t see the value in it. Doing more with less has led us to under-resource much of our work. To my eyes, it has led many of us to let down the very fragile and elusive form we work in. American contemporary theater and dance often look shoddy compared to other forms, or those same forms in places with more readily available resources.

2. I’ve heard “do more with less” in boom and bust times, so it can’t just be about the current economy.

3. I think doing more with less has become a convenient excuse not to try and make great work. If we are always doing more with less, we can always fall back on the excuse of not having had enough resources. I want to advocate that we risk big, fail big, and succeed big.

4. I don’t think work was ever made better by doing more with less. Working with fewer resources might help some artists curb some indulgences some of the time. And doing more might help a lazy or under-realized artist in some ways. But the combination of the two seems deadly, at least as a mantra.

5. I think the market is oversaturated. If there are always so many shows going on in NYC at any given time and we’re all desperate to pull in audience, and our houses are half full, maybe we are not meeting demand properly. Maybe we can build demand through anticipation (“wow remember how great that show was two years ago by those guys? I can’t wait to go to the new one!”), maybe we can collaborate on bringing better resources to each other rather than desperately clinging to our own small slices of a pie (traditional support models) that seem to be shrinking.

5. The current funding model doesn’t work. There are too many worthy projects for grantmakers to actually be able to fund all the best. I know this is true because funders tell me it is so. All the best projects do not get funded. This means that you may have a great idea, and you may feel you have to get it into the world on a timeframe that is supported by the annual funding cycle, or perceived cycle that is out there now. The fact is it might take more time to get those funds in place, to really get the work done right, than it seems like it ought to.

In my experience, doing less with more leads to stronger work. That means really taking the time to explore and define a given piece of work until it’s really ready for people to pay money to see it.

I look to examples like The Foundry Theatre (where the work is not produced until it’s deemed ready, even if that’s years later than expected), Soho Rep (which cut it’s season from five to three productions, allowing each to be more realized and recognized) and ERS, which produces a show about every two years, which then continue to tour and bring in income and accolades for as long as five years.

Doing less with more means thinking hard not about how little you could get a piece done for, but what would you do if you had everything you really needed to make it the best it could be, how long would it take to amass all that, and then setting out to do the project on the project’s terms rather than on someone else’s (Equity, LORT, NPN, The Whitney Museum, etc.) idea about what a typical production schedule is.

Of course, there will always be deadlines, financial constraints and time crunches. That’s a given. But why compound them? I want to advocate that we aim higher with our work, and that might take a little longer to accomplish, even a little longer than we might like sometimes.

In future installments: case studies on doing less with more; other fields in which there is a glut of ‘product’ related to demand; when you need to do more with less in a strategic way; knowing what your work really costs to make.


Appointment Audio

Here is a link to audio from my Appointment piece, performed October 2 at Prelude:



Appointment At Prelude

We did the first-ever installment of Appointment at the Prelude Festival yesterday. Four short pieces, written by me, Brent Green, Sibyl Kempson and Daniel Alexander Jones. A seat-of-the-pants production. Really wonderful performers including Stacey Robinson, Julia Jarcho, Pete Simpson and Anna Foss Wilson (also me and Brent). I can't wait to do more of this.

Highlights for me, performing my own piece:
1. People not being able to distinguish between the intimate conversation in the active hallway at CUNY that started my piece, and the other office activities in said hallway, and me informally chatting with a friend or colleague.

2. The fact that, when given the choice to perform my piece for the next viewer, everyone agreed to do it!

Here is Morgan Jenness performing for David Townsend. And also Stacey Robinson performing "Blondell Is Businessfied" by Daniel Alexander Jones.


Help Me Make An Appointment

People. I need help paying collaborators on Appointment, the new, ongoing performance project I'm working on.


"Appointment" is short, repeatable one-on-one performances in small offices. The first Appointment happens at PRELUDENYC in about two weeks. After that I'm going to Oslo in March to work with students at the TITAN Theater School on Norwegian Appointments. And more are in the works.

If you pledge money to my Kickstarter page, I'll be able to pay artists working with me on this project. Right now those collaborators include Sibyl Kempson, Daniel Alexander Jones, and Brent Green. You heard me. Who wouldn't want an appointment with one of them? At PreludeNYC, we'll be working on appointments that involve a handgun, a description of menstruation, an instructional in getting by at the workplace, and a chance to take my job.


I'd love for you help.



A question for you

I am soliciting thoughts and ideas.

I am working on a new piece called Appointment,, which will have its first in-progress performance at Prelude next month. It's a series of repeatable performances for one performer and one viewer.

Right now I'm writing and thinking, and here's what I'm hoping I can pull off: I want to ask the viewer a question that is general enough that the viewer feels like he/she is making up a response that is really her/his own. Meaning, it has to not feel like multiple choice.

BUT, I also want to craft what follows their response so that it feels like I just answered you and you alone, that I tailored the piece totally personally in the moment, for you. That the viewer changed the course of the work.

To me this means I either improvise each response on the spot, which would take some practice, and I don't even know if it's possible, or I come up with a range of, say, five responses, which could feel personal enough, memorize them all, and choose the one that seems most appropriate to that viewer.

What do you think I should do?

Can you imagine the kind of question that could provoke a limited, but seemingly free, number of responses?

Please feel free to comment or write me.


Collective Arts Think Tank is live

Collective Arts Think Tank has unveiled itself!


What does that mean?

A few months ago, a blog exchange among a couple artists, a couple presenters, a journalist, sundry arts professionals and a funder or two, about the state of contemporary live performance, took place on WNYC's Performance Club blog (http://blogs.wnyc.org/culture/performance/).

A few of us were charged up enough by the exchange to get together, and we met to try and come up with some observations, and recommendations to the field. We invited funders, audience members and other artists and arts professionals in; we hashed out our common ground as well as our uncommon ground; and then we wrote up the results.

The group right now includes Lost Notebook's Morgan von Prelle Pecelli, The Chocoate Factory's Brian Rogers and Sheila Lewandowski, The Field's Jennifer Wright Cook, PS 122's Vallejo Gantner and others. Individually and sometimes together, we have served on panels and town meetings. We came together out of a shared set of concerns about what we see as systemic problems facing the field of contemporary live performance. We plan to keep meeting regularly.

What came out of our meetings so far is now up on its very own blog:


Did we find all the answers? Likely we didn't. Did we try to go beyond merely complaining, or wishing we were Europe, or blaming one or another party completely? We did. We think of ourselves as stakeholders, and I'm writing to you because you are a stakeholder, too.

Some of my thinking on these subjects has been informed by my work with Creative Capital's amazing Professional Development Program, some by my work with Elevator Repair Service Theater, and some by my own experience as a theatermaker, fundraiser and panelist since 1993. I hope you'll read, respond, applaud, take-us-to-task, take us out to lunch, and think about this stuff with us.

Our hope is that CATT becomes a fulcrum for ongoing, productive and rigorous conversation about our field, what we can do to make it better, and what already makes it so great.

Best wishes for a righteous, raucus, revelatory new season.



I'm beginning what I hope will be an ongoing collaborative performance project called Appointment this fall. It's a series of repeatable 12-15 performances works, created in collaboration with artists, students and other folks, for one audience member and one performer (mostly).

Appointment will first be presented at the Prelude Festival here in New York, on October 2nd, and then next spring at the TITAN Theater Academy in Oslo, Norway.

If you'd like to follow the progress of Appointment (or be a part of it yourself), please go to the official Appointment Blog Site. It's still in progress - if you have a thought about how it looks, please drop me a line



Not posting for a while because I've been consumed with the arrival of Harold Emmett Landsman. Born July 14, at 3:31AM, weighing in at 8 pounds, 7 ounces. We hope to take him to France for his birthday before he's too old not to think all the celebrating's for him.

He is delicious and amazing. Photo by Maury Landsman. Miniature human by Aaron Landsman and Johanna S. Meyer.


Age appropriate

When you are 28 and you say you're re-evaluating whether or not you should give up, people ignore you.

At 35 people encourage you to keep at it.

At 40 everyone understands where the question is coming from.


More Links To Iran

I am following Change_for_Iran on Twitter, which is pointing me to some photo sets and other information on what is happening in Iran right now. Here are two links.

I don't entirely know the value of watching - on one hand it feels voyeuristic. I'm hoping the value is to know, and that's enough to start. I wish there were more we could do.

Here is a very large slideshow of photos from the past couple of days: http://www.flickr.com/photos/fhashemi/sets/72157619758530748/show/. Some of these are very graphic.

Lotfan.org is run by independent group of Iranian individuals living in Toronto and concerned about Iran's future.


American Journalist and Filmmaker in Iran

My friend James Longley is a documentary filmmaker working in Tehran. I wrote to check in on him today, and he wrote back with an account of what has been happening for him there.

June 14, 3:51 pm

"About three hours ago I was interviewing people on the street in downtown Tehran with my translator, not far from the Ministry of Interior building.

There were some riot police about 100 meters away at the other end of the street.

A couple people spoke to the camera – one young woman was saying that "The riot police are beating people like animals. The situation here is very bad; we need the UN to come and help with a recount of the votes!"

At about that time a plain-clothes security guy started grabbing my arm, and together with several uniformed police they dragged me and my translator off to the Ministry of Interior building.

I fared much better than my translator, whom they punched and kicked in the groin. They ripped off his ID and snatched away both our cameras. A passing police officer sprayed my translator in the face with pepper spray, although he was already being marched along the pavement by three policemen.

Unfortunately my camera was still recording and the battery was dislodged in the hubbub, destroying the video file of the interview.

As we reached the Ministry of Interior building they separated us and dragged my translator by his arms across the floor and down a flight of stairs; he eventually regained his footing on the second two flights of stairs leading downward to the holding cell, where about twenty people who had already been grabbed off the streets were kneeling on the floor in the darkened room with their hands tied behind their backs.

All during this process my translator was being kicked and sworn at. The police told him how they "would put their dicks in his ass" and how "your mother/sister is a whore" and so on. At one point he was beaten with a belt buckle. At another moment, they beat him with a police truncheon across his back, leaving a nasty welt.

My translator kept on insisting that he was an officially authorized translator working with an American journalist – which is perfectly true.

At this time I was above ground, in the entrance to the ministry, yelling over and over at the police to "Bring me my translator!" It was clear that they didn't intend to beat me – although they may have wanted to – because I was a foreigner.

After a few minutes they relented and sent someone off to retrieve my translator from their holding cell, three floors down in the Ministry of Interior building.

They came into the holding cell and shouted "Where is the translator?!" and then, when he identified himself, they beat him again for "not telling them he was a translator."

An English-speaking riot policeman tried to sweet-talk me, saying that in a riot situation anything can happen. I might have taken him more seriously had a riot actually been taking place when we were arrested. He also asked my translator to convince me not to report what had happened.

Eyewitnesses are reporting that fully-credentialed foreign journalists are similarly being detained all over Tehran today. The deputy head of the Ministry of Guidance just told me on the phone that other journalists have also been beaten, and that the official permissions no longer work. Also, foreign journalist visas are not being extended, so all of those people who were allowed in to cover the elections are now being forced out in the messy aftermath.

All in all, it made me really question what I am doing in this country. It has become impossible to work as a journalist without the risk of physical violence from the government."

James asked me to post this photo, as a way for him illustrate that, at the time they were detained, the scene around them was not a riot.


Smackdown bears results

An artist named Kahlil Almustafa put the advice some of us gave on the Field's Smackdown panel last month to good use. I'm so happy that what we talked about had a direct impact on him and his working partner. See here: An Honest Conversation About Money


TCG Post-show Exchange

Morgan v P Pecelli and Andy Horwitz (aka "I'd rather watch the fat kid dance" and "Culturebot") have a couple posts up in response to this year's TCG conference.



I was there for several hours, accepting an award given to ERS for innovation in the field.

Taken together, Morgan and Andy's posts, plus my quick window on the conference can perhaps offer a good measure of several field-wide issues:

1. No one knows quite what to do. Many of the ideas trotted out at the conference seemed dated, but not all of them. And there was so much going on that there's no one person who could really take a complete pulse. It's too easy to be cynical, though. And it's clear we're not there yet.

2. Everyone making work is scared of losing what is most important - funding, audience, risk, buildings, staff, etc. This could be for financial reasons, reasons of larger culture irrelevancy, or other.

3. There is still a huge gap between the way those of us making work outside the confines of the regional or off-Broadway and Broadway worlds think of the process and function of the art form, from the way those inside that particular, teeny tiny beltway think about it.

4. But the parties are beginning to recognize the need to come closer together.

It was a real honor for ERS to get an award. Part of our increased visibility comes from the fact that we've been able to work both within and without more mainstream institutions. We're becoming equally at home at NYTW as we are at PS122 or the Collapsable Hole.

My hope is that the company's success navigating these several worlds can be an example that other large theaters can follow when working with ensembles and vice-versa. As I said at the awards ceremony, somewhere in every city there are a bunch of ambitious, scrappy dorks who could use a hand. If you have a theater space and it is part of a more mainstream establishment in that town, offering those dorky scrappy kids some space, a little bit of dough, some outreach, will make both your lives richer. You'll have new audiences and new ideas about the form; they'll have a chance to fall down a little bit without breaking the bank, pick themselves up again, and make the work sing its own song.


Text from the Smackdown

Here is what I said in my 'prepared' statement at The Field's Smackdown event last week, as a couple people have asked to see it.


"It used to be that the arts were, or seemed to be, an exceptional and broken economy. So many people were making so much money out there while we were taking a loss. It must have just been our fault. But now a lot of systems are in disrepair – education, banking, and health care for instance. So what has changed, and what do we do?

Here are two small things: 1. we address the scarcity model; and we submit the work’s real cost and value.

A few months ago I was at an ART-NY fundraising roundtable. When the subject of funding cuts came up, people started saying, “we gotta learn how to do more with less.” I think that every year since 1993, whether the economy was booming, busting or staying just the same, I have heard someone – an artist, development person, funder, presenter – say that. I can almost hear a kind of relief in it, like crisis mode can keep us from having to risk real failure or real transcendance. So I want to advocate doing less with more. Make fewer, more brilliant shows, don’t put them up until they’re ready, and ask for enough to get them done right.

For presenters and funders, this can be tough. You’ve got all these fabulous artists who want your help. You’ve got a staff who needs a salary. You’ve got grantors or legislators or boards asking you to justify everything in terms of artistic excellence, community engagement, access, education, and diversity, all for $3,200 a year. And no one raises an eyebrow when you say you’re “commissionng” a piece for $5,000 that really costs 70 grand. But until we address this then maybe the system’s functioning just as it should: people are making a lot of art, labor costs are incredibly low-- this is what the market has borne.

So, do we want to try and change the game? And if so, how?

For starters we could make budgets that reflect real cost of the work, including the amount we are all subsidizing the field via dayjobs, credit cards trust funds or partners.

I think that freeing up the truth by doing the numbers right ultimately allows us to advocate in a new way. We can stop relying too heavily on a skewed notion of economic impact that arises out of how much we agree to do for how little.

And then we can start being citizens with allies in other fields that are also asked to do more with less, who are also driven by a mission. Teachers, death row lawyers, journalists, rural doctors, etc.

And then we can start addressing creativity as a core human trait, and the articulated imagination as one of the few things that separates us from other species. "


New Economy "Smackdown" is Smackdone

I was on a panel that was part of The Field's New Economy Smackdown last night. It was fun and smart and too long, but there's a lot to say. An encouraging thing I'm seeing in discussions like this is that they are including many stakeholders at once - from artists to presenters to funders to journalists, and this is really important, so that none of us is working in a vacuum.

Read about it here.

I think one could go to a panel like this ("what is the new economy? what is the new model? what is broken? what can we do?") in the arts about every day this month. I think it's a good thing. The system for funding and presenting the arts has been busted for a long time so it's great we're all getting out and trying to frame it, deal with it, take responsibility for it and so on.

I will say that I kind of lost my shit with a guy in the audience and I wish I hadn't. Having worked in the arts a long time, I have increasingly lost patience with people who wait until the end of what in this case was a fairly constructive event, and then shoot it down for not being what that person thought the event should be (which in this case was not entirely clear).

At the same time, I let it get under my skin more than I should have, and sort of played into a dynamic that was also counter productive. I think we argued about whether we panelists were spiritually or politically engaged enough with the larger economic crisis, but I can't be entirely sure based on what was said.

I know also that as a radical artist I totally aspire to be middle class, because I think earning the bourgeois trappings by doing wacky unsettling cultural work is highly political, especially if you're from a more marginalized demographic.

Thought for the day: how helpful is it for any one person to tell a group of other people what we "should" or "must" do? Yes it's a rhetorical question. Kind of. I ask because I think I respond more to statements about what IS happening, and what are the consequences. "When we do this, this is the result. What does that mean going forward."


Mother's Day Politiku

My friend Susanna Speier asked me to write some political haikus for mother's day, which have been posted on her Huffington Post blog.

Please enjoy, Mom.



Interesting conversation about arts funding...

I couldn't sleep the other night so posted onto Claudia LaRocco's blog conversation about arts funding. To read what went down, go HERE

Hopefully more conversations like this are going to go on. Will keep you posted about that. Thanks to Claudia, and to Morgan Von Prelle Pecelli, who provided the sourdough starter of substance for the whole thing.


Kansas City

I just spent a weekend teaching in Kansas City. I go a lot of places to do workshops, often for a day or a weekend at a time; I rarely feel like I know a city or an arts community. Even worse, I rarely feel that curious. As much as I don't approve of positing NYC as the center of American art, I do find myself really happy here.

But Kansas City makes me ache for a small, savvy, rocking, open place. The artists there are fantastic, rigorous, adventurous and intrepid. The houses are cheap and big. The food is great. The city supports the arts.

If you are there, and want to know what's happening - mostly it's visual art that predominates, though theater is making a play, too - go to http://www.charlottestreet.org/. David Hughes has his finger on the pulse.


Doing Less With More

I was at a meeting of fundraising people recently, who work for small or medium-sized theater companies, and we were talking about the impending funding cuts. And people started tossing around that hackneyed non-profit mantra of "We have to learn to do more with less." And I thought (but was too timid to say): How much less can we do more with? It's like asking an anorexic to cut down on carbs.

We should be doing less with more. If there are five hundred theater companies in New York, and everyone is having trouble filling the house, then there are perhaps too many of us trying to do too much with too little already. The supply is not meeting the demand. And the only way to bring audiences back to the theater (besides giving away tickets) in any meaningful sense is to make work that is unforgettable. And that takes time.

The great thing about small companies and organizations is that we don't have to act like institutions. The ones that are trying to do less (fewer shows per year, say) with more (spending enough on them to get them done right), are the ones that really are thriving: ERS, SoHo Rep, NTUSA The Foundry.


At The Red Fox

This is a clip of Mark and Lorna, a couple who perform six nights a week at the Red Fox Lounge in Winter Park, FL, near Orlando. I happened to be staying at the Best Western where the Red Fox is located, and got to see them. They have been playing there for 18 years, married 37 years. They are purportedly the basis for the SNL skit "The Culps." They are remarkable. Please visit them in real life.


Ben Cameron's speech at ISPA

I just stumbled onto this speech, and I think it's worth reading. There's a lot here. Take a breath, get a beverage and block out some time:


Here are two tidbits:

1. "We may be in the arts looking at the world—watching our audiences shrink, seeing subscribers decline, standing by as organizations teeter and fall—through the lens of scarcity, when the world—especially the young—are playing in a field of abundance."

2. "Theatre practitioners how report growing audience resistance to encountering any idea not instantly recognizable as one’s own, an increasing polarization in our country, for instance, that led members of the audiences at last year’s Tony winning Alliance Theatre to exit en masse, mid-act, climbing over others, when a character said, “If I had time with George Bush, I’d tell him to share his toys and play nice with others.” For so many, the encounter with the other, with difference, with the new lies at the heart of our missions and purpose: what will it mean for us if we lose this appetite as a society and wish only to encounter the familiar, the known, the already embraced?"


"Even The Nostalgia Was Better Back Then"

Here is a video of excerpts from some monologues I put together a couple years ago. There's going to be a production of this piece in San Diego, directed by Judy Bauerlein, later this year.


Douglas Coupland

I thought this op-ed captures something of now.


Instructions for a day alone in Lisbon

1. Order what you can neither pronounce nor translate. It's likely it will taste good.

2. Listen to how nice everything sounds on the lips and tongue.

3. Saudade.

4. Go to a record store where you like the sounds coming out the door. Maybe in the Bairro Alto. Ask the clerk, in Portugese ("fala ingles?") if they speak English. If so, ask for recommendations of local music, or his/her favorite music. Say you are a musical omnivore; if "omnivore" doesn't register, then say, "I like everything," in either language.

5. Do things earnestly but with a sense of humor, if possible.

6. Enjoy the fact that the Portugese, "No," sounds like the English "Nao."

7. Read whatever book you are carrying, preferably outside. See how long it takes to finish a chapter.