Selected excerpts from Brendan Kiley’s interview with John Kazanjian of New City Theater.
On the term “fringe theater”: We should all be more political in our language. The culture war is over, and we lost, but it’s still going on—the oppression of keeping culture down and out of the minds of the people who walk the landscape. What’s “fringe?” Fringe is the border of something. It superfluous, you don’t really need it. That term pigeonholes emerging artists as extraneous and that’s bullshit. It’s a categorization that smells. It has an artistic stink to it. So we’re an “experimental, senior arts organization”—tut, tut and fuck you, too.
On regional theater: It was originally started as a movement to pay artists, but through the 1970s, it became a system that supported institutions. It’s a forced corporate structure with economic pressure and a management hierarchy to manage the economic pressure. Managers become full-time, artists become part-time, and then regional theaters became motels instead of homes for artists—you work for a few weeks and then have to move out. I’m not dumping on managers. Everybody working in theater is making far less than they could in the business world, but the system is flawed and imbalanced.
On how to use regional theaters: The next idea for us, and I think it’s a model that is being revised in the shadows, is the residency model. We have all these buildings. The electricity is on and the heat is on. There are big institutions and subscriptions—these are all artists! There’s a range of things that they want to do much broader than what they’re able to do. So a group of artists could have residency, where the place really becomes a home for them, not permanent, but on annual basis. There’s got to be a marriage, there has be artistic compatability and personal compatability. You don’t want to work with assholes.
On the culture wars: They won. They kicked the culture war into gear in 1988, when [the NEA] rescinded grants and politics came into the funding process. Those people feel that the public dollar should not be used for the arts, believe that the arts should not be a part of the educational world, believe that art should be in the marketplace like any other product, and the good art will survive in the market and the bad art won’t. Reagan initiated the argument and by 1988 it slowly gathered energy and force and exploded onto the landscape.
One aspect of the strategy was: How do you defeat your foe? You can’t do it with physical violence. You defame character. How do I get you fired from your job? I’m going to go out and say, “I can’t believe it, he was an asshole, you know what he said about you and your organization?” I’m going to talk to other people and I’m going to find aspects of your character and distort it. So they went after what our tax dollars were supporting that people would find offensive.
So, in our Puritanical society, sex and the body are offensive. They identified any project that was minimally funded and socio-politically graphic, with serious issues of race, sex, and depression—but particularly sex. Then they said to the public: “Look at what your tax dollars are supporting!” But they distorted it. They went after Serrano [of the infamous Piss Christ] and people would read about it: “He’s got a crucifix in a jar of urine and he’s getting my tax dollars to do that?” That’s the way it was presented and people became offended. The examples that they sent out were highly offensive—offensive to me, too. That’s what I thought when I saw them. But I went and saw the work, so I saw the distortion that was going on. Distortion, deception, and deceit. They’re still using those tactics.
On selling New City’s facility: At that time, New City had been very successful, getting major national grants. The NEA had a “special projects” category. They would give out five to seven project-oriented grants a year. We got two of them in a three-year period, but “special projects” was one of the first NEA programs to go. The NEA had to contract and reduce their programs because of their budget cuts.
We had been successful within that system, which supported our content and form—and that content and form is not to the popular taste. The content is socio-political and we were interested in working with people experimenting with the boundaries of the form.
I saw that with the decrease in funding, we could not continue to do this kind of work because it had a small audience base—if we kept doing this work, we’d wind up screaming: “Deficit! Help! Crisis!” And we weren’t engaging enough people to save us. I said to the board: “We’re going to have to change the content and mission or go bankrupt. The other option is to sell the building, put the money in the bank, and not change the mission and goals of this arts organization.” I said that years before it was coming so we’d have time to talk about it.
We talked about it, did financial planning, made a ten-year plan—and then we sold the building in 1996. And everybody said: “You’re nuts! You’re nuts!” The regional system had become enamored with buildings instead of artists.
Arts funding was diving but Seattle theaters began a building campaign. And look at all the arts organizations that got caught in the cross-current: Pioneer Square Theater, the Bathhouse, the Group, the Empty Space went through how many financial crises related to facilities… The larger institutions are in the cross-current, but because they had a bigger financial and audience base, it hit them later—it’s hitting them now.
On paying artists: It was always, “I want my own place and artists get paid first.” So when I look at what money I have and what I’m going to do with it, the first budget line is artists’ salaries. The last budget line is publicity and promotion. I would rather take the risk of people not coming and paying my artists. I want to try and make the highest quality work that I can get and if I can do that, people will come. It’s not “I’m going to make work, and the work is going to try and go to the audience, to the people.” When you make work that’s open and accessible and interesting, people will come. It’s a subtle tenet, but it’s big, and it’s how you make a budget. That’s another reason for selling the building—so we can continue to pay artists. I didn’t ever want to leave that. We always pay the artists.
On New City’s experience in a SoDo warehouse: I simply wanted to get out of the city and that was personal, and I wanted a raw non-theatrical space. I wasn’t going to turn it into a black box. I wanted people to walk into a warehouse because of my aesthetic interest. I also moved down there because it was $1,500 a month. The same space up here in the city is $5,000. We were down there four years and we did six performances. At some point, way back in the seventies, we had these unused bathhouses. And these bathhouses that we were sitting on became performances spaces. The city, because they owned the spaces—and they still do—subsidized the overhead. They didn’t have to get funding money. Business and government should partner to help arts organizations move into empty warehouses and reduce their overhead. We need to move to the economic margins of the city. We’ve already proven that people will come. This is the whole history of the twentieth century. Is it happening that the city is becoming denser and the population is moving out? Yes.