Sunday, February 1, 2009

Trauma Drama

Nothing gets the adrenaline flowing like a good solid threat to your future well-being. Whether the threat is financial, intellectual, or physical, learning that your life is on the line has a way of quickly reshuffling priorities. San Francisco's Magic Theatre is one of many nonprofits that have been severely affected by the recent downturn in the economy. In December the company found itself in dire straits which could not only lead to the cancellation of the remaining productions in its 43rd season but, perhaps, to the company's untimely demise.

Desperate times call for desperate measures.  Some staff were let go while others agreed to work without salary. A dramatic rescue effort by the Magic's Board of Directors (including a grass-roots appeal over the Internet for financial help) managed to resolve more than half a million dollars in debt that had accumulated before the dynamic Loretta Greco took over the company's artistic reins last year.

Missy Kirchner, the chairman of the Magic's Board of Directors, credits the viral impact of its Internet SOS for helping the company meet its goal. According to Kirchner, Magic Theatre received more than 1,100 contributions from 23 states, ranging from $5 to $20,000Watching Loretta Greco address the audience on opening night of Oni Faida Lampley's Tough Titty left no doubt that the past two months had been a white knuckle roller coaster ride for the company's board and staff.  However, it also provided a valuable lesson for nonprofit arts institutions of all shapes and sizes.

In recent years, nonprofits have been learning how to use the Internet to increase visibility, stimulate fundraising, and build stronger relationships with their audiences. With such powerful models as MoveOn.orgEmily's List, and the recent Presidential campaign of Barack Obama, they no longer have to struggle to reinvent the process. As social networking tools like MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter continue to develop larger followings and more innovative applications, nonprofits are able to strengthen the bond of stickiness that marketers work so hard to achieve with consumers over a period of time.

While the traditional pyramid of philanthropy has offered a long-term model for converting single ticket buyers into subscribers, its ultimate goal is to convert subscribers into donors who can then recruit more subscribers and donors.  The hard-hitting donors at the top of the pyramid of philanthropy have traditionally been wealthy people and corporations -- the very entities whose portfolios have suffered shocking losses in the current global economic crisis. Thanks to investment scoundrels like Bernie Madoff and Alberto Vilar, some nonprofits have seen their hard-earned endowments evaporate into thin air.

That's where the Internet, with its long tail demographics, can act as a savior. The ability to use viral technology to spread an urgent message is a relatively new phenomenon in fundraising for the arts. Think of how fundraising campaigns used to be conducted through expensive direct mail campaigns, telethons aimed at gathering pledges, expensive gala events, and one-on-one meetings with high rollers. Think of the costs that went into managing each campaign, the preproduction costs for print, entertainment, catering, etc., and the length of time it took to get the money in the bank. 

The return on investment was often less than spectacular.

Compare that to the cost and efficacy of sending an email to hundreds or thousands of supporters that contains a hyperlink which can take readers to a webpage that allows them to make an instant donation using their credit card or PayPal account. Think of the continuing momentum that builds as loyal, informed supporters forward that same message to their friends. 

A ripple effect goes to work like a constructive (rather than destructive) tsunami that can travel great distances in a flash and reap previously unimaginable rewards with remarkable efficiency. As the sorting capabilities of relational databases have evolved over the past twenty years, nonprofits have been able to accomplish far more with much less while reducing the window of time necessary to get cash in the bank.  

Years ago, when I interviewed Cleve Jones for Stallion magazine, he stressed that the gay movement was supported by two very different types of forces: There were semi-closeted entrepreneurs and celebrities who had access to lots of money and could easily write a big check in support of a cause or event. There were also foot soldiers of the gay movement who did not possess great wealth but could show up for demonstrations, stuff envelopes, and do the grunt work required at a critical moment in time. In a wonderful scene in Gus Van Sant's Milk, the film shows how, three decades ago, a phone tree was used to spread the word in an emergency.

I prefer a visualization that is infinitely more dramatic.  On a cold April night in 1912, the R.M.S. Titanic sent out a wireless call for help announcing that it had struck an iceberg and was rapidly sinking. Although the S.S. Californian was only five miles away, its radio operator had turned in for the night and did not receive the Titanic's message. As a result, nearly 1,500 lives were lost as "the ship that God himself could not sink" went to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

It's a well-known fact that many wealthy people were traveling on board the Titanic for its maiden voyage. These pillars of society (ranging from John Jacob Astor IV to Denver's Margaret "Molly" Brown) were the cream of the social register. In modern times, their families would have been heavy supporters of the arts, the top layer of society sitting at the top of the pyramid of philanthropy.

Think back to James Cameron's Titanic and try to remember a tiny computer-generated image of the Titanic sending up flares while slowly sinking into the ocean.  I've been an ocean liner buff for most of my life.  But, when I first saw Cameron's movie, that image solidified a crucial moment I had never fully processed by showing how horribly alone those people were and how few people could actually sense the critical nature of their distress. 

Contrast that vision with scenes from Finding Nemo or any number of full-length animated feature films in which a distress signal instantly mobilizes a rapid response from schools of fish, flocks of birds, and herds of wild animals that all rush to the rescue. Whether keeping a ship afloat, a plane aloft, or a magic carpet in motion, that kind of instantaneous support once existed solely in the realm of the imagination.

Today's social networking sites allow nonprofits to work much faster and more effectively to convert single ticket buyers to subscribers, convert subscribers to donors, and mobilize donors in an emergency. Today's software effortlessly converts the consumer of a pleasurable experience (like a symphonic concert or theatrical performance) to someone with the long-term loyalty of a college alumnus (or a hospital patient who remains grateful for the care he once received). 

Thus, when a call goes out for help, it is met with a much speedier response. Thanks to the power of the Internet, both long tail responses (large numbers of small gifts) and short tail responses (small numbers of large gifts) can be generated simultaneously from a donor base of first responders, thus helping a nonprofit organization to stay afloat in a terrifying financial crisis. The financial cost of posting such a message or sending a blast email?  A truly negligible amount.

* * * * * *

Every little increment of hope matters. In Tough Titty, we quickly learn why. As a naive Catholic teenager, Angela once made a bargain with God that she could play around and have herself a good time until she was 20 (old), or maybe even 30, (you know, like really old). Then she would get serious, take the veil, become a nun, and devote herself to God's work. 

Although she has followed all the recommended diets, exercised properly and done everything she thought a health-conscious young black woman is supposed to do, Angela's world starts to implode when she is diagnosed with breast cancer at a relatively young age. Looking at the medical pamphlets she has collected over the years -- which seem to lack any images of black people -- she can't believe that breast cancer has happened to her. How could it? She did everything right!

Kimberly Herbert Gregory (Photo by David Allen)

As cancer survivors and medical providers have come to understand, cancer doesn't care whether you're white or black, what you ate, or how much you exercised. It doesn't care how many bargains you tried to negotiate with God, how many promises you made to atone for your sins, or anything like that. It's an insidious disease process. No matter how acutely the guilt-stricken cancer victim may perceive the diagnosis as the result of bad decisions or risky past actions, cancer doesn't really care. 

It just quietly goes about its business of destroying the cells in your body.

The playwright, Oni Faida Lampley (who succumbed to breast cancer in 2008) can be seen talking about her disease in a video on the Magic Theatre's website. As she reads from her script, it is easy to see how intensely the need to keep writing helped her cope with her disease process. The only problem is that what may have worked to keep Lampley going in her personal life does not play out too well onstage. As directed by Robert O'Hara, Tough Titty's message is exactly what the title says:  

You got cancer?  Tough Titty.  

You don't like it?  Tough Titty. 

You think everyone's conspiring against you? Tough Titty. 

You're not that special.  Lots of people get cancer. Life is tough and then you die.

Alas, the same basic message -- Tough Titty -- applies to Lampley's drama. As a play, it's not that special. As a play, it's not that well written. As a play, the Magic Theatre's production is not that well directed. Kimberly Herbert Gregory gives her all to an extremely demanding role as a tough, black woman who is determined not to let her cancer defeat her. But there's something about Angela's final monologue (with a faux Greek chorus egging her on) that simply doesn't ring true. Others in the ensemble include Michele Shay as Angela's friend Sheila, Elizabeth Carter as Angela's mother, and Jeri Lynn Cohen doubling as St. Agatha and an ESL medical worker.

Angela's husband Shaka (Adrian Roberts) is portrayed as a black man trying to cope with a tortured and often irrational wife.  Shaka lets his fear of hospitals keep him at home (rather than visiting Angela in the hospital while she is undergoing treatment). But his character also embodies the frustrated, resigned man who, after years of having been lectured that when a woman says "no," she means "no," decides to take her at her word (only to be castigated for not thinking she meant "yes"). While it would be easy to paint Shaka as a totally unsympathetic character, I found him to be stubbornly devoted to a domineering, irascible black woman -- the kind of man who continues to plow through a never-ending crisis by putting one foot in front of another with a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" understanding and acceptance of his own personal limitations.

Adrian Roberts and Kimberly Herbert Gregory
(Photo by David Allen)

It's only fair that I admit to a huge personal handicap when evaluating a script like Tough Titty. As an atheist, I find it difficult to accept a character's continued conversations with God as a viable structure for a full-length play. Whether you're an angry black woman with breast cancer or a poor Russian dairyman named Tevye, at a certain point bargaining with God becomes a dramatic gimmick which loses its effectiveness with continued repetition.

* * * * * * *
I was much more impressed by the Aurora Theatre Company's West Coast premiere of George Packer's Betrayed. Based on a series of articles Packer wrote for The New Yorker Magazine about Iraqis who, at great personal danger, had gone to work for the United States (only to be hunted down as spies by their fellow Iraqis), Betrayed is a powerful drama which gives new insights into the well-earned stereotype of the ugly American.  Packer's military and diplomatic personnel are enthusiastic, well-meaning souls who arrive in a foreign culture with little to no concern about how their actions are perceived. Brainwashed by the kind of cowboy diplomacy and jingoistic propaganda that Karen Hughes thought would bring peace to the Middle East and handily convert Muslims to Christianity, they do a splendid job of fucking things up with the natives.

Packer's first play is remarkable not only for its content, but also for the theatrical skill with which he has adapted the Iraqis he interviewed for the stage. He paints his characters with a deftness one would attribute to a veteran playwright and constructs key scenes and confrontations with astonishing skill.  

His three main characters are Adnan (Bobak Cyrus Bakhtiari), Laith (Amir Sharafeh), and Intisar (Denmo Ibrahim). One man is Sunni, his closest friend is Shia. Intisar is a defiant and proud Iraqi woman who refuses to wear a hijab until it becomes a matter of life or death.

Denmo Ibraham (Photo by David Allen)

Their American boss, Prescott (Alex Moggridge), arrives at Baghdad's American Embassy tragically unprepared for the realities of life outside the politically naive bubble of the Bush administration's fantasies. Packer's play lets the audience witness Prescott's slow and sorry awakening (following Intisar's brutal murder) to the dangers faced by his interpreters as well as their growing awareness of how desperately their lives are imperiled each moment they remain in Iraq.

After Prescott suffers an emotional breakdown and is sent back to America, Adnan and Laith quickly learn how little support they have from the staff at the U.S. Embassy.  Having failed to get the Ambassador to intervene, Prescott eventually manages to call in some favors from his diplomatic colleagues in Baghdad, thus helping Laith escape to Rome and then travel to Sweden (where Adnan will eventually join him).

Amir Sharafeh, Alex Moggridge, and Bobak Cyrus Bahktiari 
(Photo by David Allen)

More than anything else, this play highlights the problems caused by our cultural insensitivity, bull-headed ignorance, and the heinous American tendency to dismiss and trivialize the collateral damage our country inflicts on people who risk their lives trying to help the United States achieve its political goals.  Betrayed is a powerful play, beautifully acted by Aurora Theatre Company's talented ensemble under Robin Stanton's perceptive direction.  It is a most satisfying dramatic experience.

While most nonprofit arts companies are shrinking their staffs and programs, Aurora is the rare nonprofit that is actually expanding its facilities and outreach.  On January 12th, the company had a "wall-breaking" ceremony to mark the commencement of a $2.1 million capital campaign. The company's new construction project will add 2,600 square feet to be used for a new rehearsal space and artistic offices. The company, which recently embarked on its Global Age Project 2009, is offering a series of play readings on Monday nights in February. 

At a time when all we seem to be hearing from nonprofit arts organizations is bad news accompanied by dire predictions, the Aurora's continued artistic success and physical expansion offer cause for celebration.

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