Farewell to Theater

Traditional big-box theater in America is at an extreme disadvantage when it comes to reforming its structure. Even though the relevant numbers have been crunched as tweaks, gimmicks, and roll backs have been accepted, there still is the implicit resolve among the old school that “Beyond this point we can go no farther.”  This barrier to change affects how the content of plays speaks to the non well-off (which is increasing) and under 60 theater goers.

After 50 or so issues of American Theater Magazine it is clear that your group has highlighted all attempts at tech, finance, and education innovations without changing theater itself. Your roots go to the past and significant change is in constant negotiations with several generations of what has worked in the past. When writing about how theater is done in other countries, I have nothing but good things to say. But other countries do not share our past. In any event, Americans may not be able to duplicate their success.

Since it all comes down to money, I would like to offer my two cents about why reform is limited when working from the top down. An approach of creating from the bottom up would look very different than trying to pinch pennies out of multi million dollar budgets. I include the 99 seat theater class that appears to be bargain versions of that same form and substance.

Don’t get me wrong. I saved several valuable articles that the magazine has printed that would also be valuable to those thinking (and working) outside the three-walled box. More of those type of articles have not appeared for some time. Maybe you’ve said all you have to say on what we both have in common.

But serious core reform seems to be hampered by what remaining traditional sponsors and aging subscribers expect, even as building and operation costs escalate and attention spans plummet. Because this is not where I’m going, maybe theater isn’t my end all be all. Maybe I should be traveling the multimedia road. Of course, TCG incorporates multimedia while refusing to yield the center. But a true multimedia approach has no structural bias. It is a true bottom up, continually changing experience.

I’ve been part of other genres that refused to yield the center when their time had passed. Cable public access TV refused to make a full transition to internet multimedia platforms so is withering away without a replacement. Public poetry readings rarely have more people in the audience than readers waiting their turn to bore, I mean read. Meanwhile the slam poets on Button Poetry are getting between a hundred thousand and a million views. These changes are not a passing fad.

It would not surprise me to see several structures and genres working in an ever changing flux together. Those who have been big fish in the traditional theater pond and ignore this change are going to find that their pond will be getting smaller and smaller until it is just a mud hole.

This head in the sand attitude about structure spills over into content offerings as well. For content cannot be isolated from current events and the broader experiences of the public. Likewise, current events cannot be separated from the real people that make up the public. The public is not always well informed and often overstocked on fear, anger, and class bias. But they are the public. Who is your audience?

I couldn’t help notice that several of your magazine issues have been obsessed with thinly disguised shock and disbelief about Trump being President. Since the Orange One never attempted to fool anyone about who or what he was during his campaign, I can only conclude that the motivations of a large segment of the voters are irrelevant to the official theater establishment. I know many people personally who voted for him and why. No, I wasn’t one of them. But I am not out of touch either.

In an effort to seem more broad minded, the rather forced ‘Enter Stage Right” article was printed. What was called “conservative theater” was mostly a reaction against things in the status quo that weren’t working. Bernie Sanders offered an equal popular solution against things in the status quo that weren’t working but he was shut down by the DNC, not the forces of Trump. The non ideologues who were so done with the status quo saw themselves stuck with Trump. I see the same fallacy of false alternatives in American Theater.

The irony is the “99 seat theater” class has aped the big theater gang instead of breaking away on a separate course. My recent experience was last years “Nittany Theater” contest which bent and twisted the terms of a small grant to do pretty much whatever the Hell they felt like doing. The writers who were sucked in by the advertised noble theme of the contest were just nobodies in some insipid Summer Stock’s ruse to get some free publicity. The message is, small is sometimes even smaller.

The bottom line is I will not be renewing American Theater since I would be reading more obituaries of people I never heard of than inspiring innovations in the performance arts. I’ll be finding my way to the future in other places.

Route 12, 4pm

On September 6th the Lake Transit Board finalized substantial cuts in bus service to Lake County residents. Some cuts were on runs that few people use. However, at least two routes that were cut either jeopardize public safety or eliminate service to Social Services for the entire afternoon for most County residents.

Were all of these cuts necessary in hard times? My answer based on some experience and a lot of number crunching is “no”. Specifically, I redesigned three routes in my own report so the necessary savings could be made while compromising the fewest number of people. This report was sent to all elected representatives on the Board but was not mentioned in the analysis of public comment.

During the September meeting the Lake Transit General Manager, Mark Wall, glossed over a couple problems by combining them with issues that were resolved. This confusion was around cutting the 4pm Route 12 to Social Services. Although it was not brought up by the General Manager, the last appointment at social services is at 4:30pm. After conferring with disabled riders and IHSS workers I confirmed there is almost no allowance for being late. You would have to make another appointment.

My report mentioned that late appointments could “leave” by Route 10 if Social Services did not mind people waiting outside for an extra half hour after all the employees left. I assume this is what Wall was referring to when he said Social Services did not see a problem. He did not elaborate. The problem of arriving will remain.

In spite of scheduled connection glitches cited in my report, Wall deferred to Wanda Gray, the Operations Manager, who said people could take Route 10 to Social Services in the afternoon. This only works for Clearlake residents. Route 10 cannot connect with late regionals. My report showed clearly that it is impossible for riders in Middletown, Cobb, and Kelseyville to get to Social Services for an afternoon appointment. Northshore and Lakeport will have to take the Route 1 that leaves one hour earlier and spend more time waiting at  Social Services.

Here is how the drill works. All you (or a Board member) need to check this scenario is a bus schedule. Currently, late afternoon Social Services appointments is served by the 2:10pm Lakeport Route 4 and the 2:30 Sutter Hospital Route 1. The 2:10 will arrive at Walmart at 3:10 after the 3pm Route 10 has left. Wait for the next bus? The 4pm Route 10 will get you to Social Services at 4:38, too late for the last appointment of the day. The 2:30 Route 1 also gets you to Social Services, via Route 10, at 4:38. But at least there is an earlier 1:30 Route 1 where someone can connect with the  last planned Route 12 at 3pm. This is barely doable for functional people.

People in Kelseyville, Middletown, or Cobb do not even have this option since there is no possible way to leave in the afternoon and make an afternoon appointment. Kelseyville would have to take the 11am Route 4. Middletown would have to take the 10:21am Route 3. And Cobb would have to take the 10:53am Route 2 to transfer to the Route 4, leaving Kelseyville at 11:27.

Many people want to dismiss the issue by just saying people can ask for a morning appointment instead of the first available time. Yes they can….and wait longer for an appointment. Though several cuts are unnecessary, cutting the 4pm Route 12 almost seems intended to cause the maximum amount of suffering for the most people while saving the least amount of money.

Lake Transit Chopping Block

As everyone knows a big chunk of transit money is grants. One of these grant pools is drying up this year. This particular pool has been getting smaller every year. Now the Transit Authority has to make cuts in service.

Most of these cuts will be lightly used routes and runs. Some routes are untouchable for the time being. Our contracted general manager will look at ridership on each run, how much money we have left, and what changes have to be made in the other routes to smooth over the gap. His recommendations will be made to the Transit Board and they will vote yes because they will not want to study the details.

In past meetings the General Manager and the Operations Manager noted which runs will be looked at hard for possible cuts. These tend to be routes to the hinterlands, 2 and 4A, and runs on popular routes that are too early or late to have more than one or two passengers on board. Regardless of the number of passengers, if these runs connect to an out of County route they can’t be cut. Otherwise another pool of money will disappear entirely.

There are a couple of special cases. One is that part of the 4A that runs to the Konocti Vista Casino. In addition to gamblers, people work at the Casino and there are two large communities nearby. Years ago, before the 4A was born, this was on the popular Route 4 line. Four was later diverted to Highway 29 outside Lakeport to express itself to Clearlake. If 4A is eliminated 4 will have to reroute its service back to Konocti Vista.

The other special case is the City of Clearlake for a couple reasons. Clearlake receives over have the system’s transit runs on three local routes. All three overlap in a large triangle area in the center of the City. Clearlake’s local area includes the adjacent town of Lower Lake where the High School and Lake County Social Services are located.

Lower Lake is served as an afterthought at the tail end of Route 10. This Route is primarily designed to serve Clearlake Park, a subdivision of extremely bad and narrow roads. Instead, most people go to Lower Lake on Route 12 which loops around town at the beginning of the Route before overlapping Clearlake’s center triangle with the other two local Routes. On Saturday the High School and Social Services are closed. Probably Route 12 could be closed on Saturday as well.

Since schedules take time to design they aren’t done for minor or temporary changes. There is a rumor that all the cuts that could be made without damaging service too much will be made all at once, even though this may be a little ahead of the curve money wise.

The good news is that during periods of forced change, opportunities arise to make other changes. Change requires a period of adjustment so managers who like things to run smoothly don’t change for creative purposes. Change is usually the result of more money, less money, or a new law. The route cuts and changes may reopen cost neutral options for the overlapping local routes in Clearlake. The overlaps produce ongoing transfer and route planning confusion.

Due to three routes overlapping many passengers could misuse transfers for return trips. That is why a rigid policy exists allowing transfers at only specific locations other than the beginning of the route. It is inconvenient and seems unfair to riders. If a passenger is adamant that they got on the wrong bus to begin with, drivers will usually relent and ask another driver to honor a transfer.

The service rule for Clearlake is that any local route change must all serve current stops every hour. By measuring the time allotted between all Clearlake stops on each of the three routes and adding these segments together you get the total amount of time to serve Clearlake. Currently it takes two full routes and most of a third to do the job. It would take a single bus an hour and 20 minutes to serve all Clearlake stops. Passengers would also feel thrashed after such a long local ride.

But I have made an amazing discovery. Using the time numbers and the limiting assumption I have found a cost neutral way to hit all the Clearlake stops every hour using only one route. This would eliminate all transfer problems and most trip planning difficulties in the City. This seems impossible given the hour and 20 minute drive time to travel to all stops. Guess how it could be done. Hint: All three local routes are intersecting loops.

Letter to Mendocino’s Ad Hoc Committee on Public Access

I am the Secretary for Cache Creek Performance, a non-profit created by some former TV8 volunteers.  The purpose of Cache Creek Performance is to create a structure to contract for non-traditional public and private venues. Our focus area is Lake County and Ukiah Valley. I believe the Board of Supervisors may be interested in our idea for a relevant internet platform for all Mendo-Lake community media.

 Twenty years ago, cable TV was still in it’s prime. For rural California, it seemed that almost every home was hooked into cable TV. 

Behind the scenes, many government and volunteer hours were spent obtaining contracts for public access funding, putting broadcast studios in place, and keeping the channels operational.  Having a public access channel was the only community controlled media.  It was a boon for local businesses and community groups, while allowing local governments to educate and engage their citizens. It was the only public platform for local performers, producers and videographers. 

 But now, many customers are switching from cable to satellite for their television viewing.  Other customers are giving up their television sets altogether, using the internet to provide them with both information and entertainment. The internet doesn’t require people to schedule their lives around someone else’s schedule. We enjoy an explosion of choices that we can use at our convenience.

Local businesses, organizations and governments are less dependent on Public Access, preferring to rely on their websites to get their information out.   Budgets are tightening, and the cost of running brick and mortar operations keeps rising.   And with the loss of cable customers, Public Access viewership is dropping.   Now would seem like a good time to say ‘good-bye’ to Public Access. 

 But the internet has not been able to fully replace public access. There is no one place on the internet where someone can learn about the full range of local culture, local issues, and local activities.  Without some kind of filter, the community gets lost in the cyberspace noise.  And it is that very cyber roar that puts our community identities at risk. 

  Perhaps as important as our community identity, is our right to a public forum.  Unlike satellite TV and internet, Public Access holds a special place as a legal “designated public forum.”  It cannot be overridden by commercial or political considerations.  And, since the enactment of DIVCA, we can be pretty sure that if we allow these unique Public Access forums to fall off of our radar, we can never get them back.

 How do we keep these assets alive in this changing climate?  First, we need to rethink the type of local government contributions that would best support the transition of our public access channels to the internet.  Second, we need to work with the new technology. 

 Viable public access requires: a place for the live cable jack (ensuring a legal free speech entity for all the public); protected storage for valuable equipment; and an inclusion under the County insurance umbrella.  This way, the County could support the transformation of a vital resource by replacing PEG line items with in-kind support.  Other examples are increased municipal wi-fi locations (remember, the shift to more internet incorporation) and better access to public spaces for “on-the-fly” shooting spaces as well.  But no scary budget item for a declining technology.

 Technically, the cable links need to be nodes on an internet platform, which is essentially a beefed up blog site. WordPress Premium at $8.25 per month should be adequate. The $5 per month Vimeo option seems to be working well as the preferred video upload site for Willits. Notice I said links, plural. Each access channel and community radio in the region would need to have their own pages on the platform for basic info and links which they would administer themselves. Live streaming and podcasts should be platform centered. There are plans available for under $20 per month.

Cache Creek Performance would like to help create a relevant internet platform, including cable public access, for all Mendo-Lake community media.

 

Public Access Transition

Since the late 1970’s the principle electronic public media has been channels on cable TV. But they were an option that most cable franchisers did not ask for, according to a survey by the Alliance for Community Media. From the beginning the goal has been to allow local content from the public without social or political considerations. Other alternate media included underground newspapers, low power community radio, public broadcasting tv and Pacifica Radio.

By the late 1980’s political and economic changes shifted the relevance of various alternative and public media. The financing of public broadcasting, as opposed to public access, became dominated by corporate sponsors. In the 90’s the internet gradually replaced much alternative print media. Even though video options on the internet increasingly replaced cable video the internet itself never provided much community centered media. The internet was better at dispersing media than connecting people, especially in community. Those communities that used the cable public access option still had a better source of local and public media. Cable use was declining but so was print media, which kept cable public access relevant.

From the beginning, political entities in and out of government occasionally tried to censor legal content on public access channels, which enjoy the legal status of a “designated public forum.” Over time a number of political and economic innovations sucked money away from the public sectors and transferred it to commercial entities. Local government budgets became tight and the perceived essential services were going to be fulfilled first even if other functions could survive on a pittance. At the extreme, there are several problems with this reasoning as well as a couple of solutions.

Not all public access channels were well funded. Many did not receive any general fund money or an entitled part of the cable franchise fee. Public support often consisted of free rent in an unused part of a public facility. This was the case in Lake County. TV8 was a single channel access station created by a provision in the city of Clearlake’s cable franchise. There was never any intention to turn over day to day operations to a qualified non profit. It was bounced around from one public space to another. It was financed solely by a $5400 per year Distance Learning Program fee charged to Yuba College. Even though it was never a budget burden this did not prevent the most egregious violations of civil liberties by government authorities who locked out volunteers under flimsy pretenses.

The bottom line is that there is a critical need for an independent, public, and local media if communities are going to be vibrant and inclusive. But the technology and funding are going to have to change. If public media advocates step forward to make the transition then politicians need to help the transition to the next step forward in community media. Especially since it won’t cost much.

The Alliance for Community Media has been working to make the the technical transformation of public access from a cable dependent media to internet based platforms where existing cable access channels will become “nodes” of local content. The internet is now more accessible to more people than cable tv. Many subscribers have switched to satellite tv where public access is not an option. A media platform or portal could be an upgraded blog site. The Premium version of WordPress costs $8.25 per month.

Linked videos on the public platform could be stored on YouTube, Vimeo, or Archive.org.  Each “division” of this new local media platform will have its own page on the platform. Probably these separate pages would be edited by non profits with the homepage edited by the sites overall administrator. The three public access stations in Mendocino and the one in Trinity are owned by non profits. My own non profit which is currently parked is Cache Creek Performance. I naively intended it to operateTV8. There are several low cost live streaming services that charge by the month or data use to make local media more of a real time experience.

With many production programs being usable on a good laptop, the only resource missing is space for a studio. This is where thinking outside the box is critical. Why pay rent on space that is not used most of the time? If lighting and sound equipment can be put in portable packages, a studio can be anywhere – meeting rooms, restaurant stages, coffee shops, churches, government chambers. I’ve used them all. And let’s not forget the great big outdoors. There are schools with small performance areas open to the public (Lower Lake High School) as well as non profits who might like to trade temporary shooting space for publicity.

How do you make the public aware that this is the new goto public media? First, everyone on the site needs to plug the site and everyone else on it while they still can. Second, sponsor or cosponsor events and contests. Obviously the first contest should be “The Best Name for This Platform” contest. I would be interested in sponsoring a new type of Slam Poetry competition, especially if I could get Mendocino’s Poet Laureate Michael Riedell on board. There are clubs who are always looking for speakers. We need to speak to them. When something new happens on the platform, such as its initial formation, we need to send out press releases.

What can local government do to help transition to the new public media? They can make a commitment to the future. Rather than simply let declining public access channels crash and burn a positive response would go something like: “The days of paying for centralized facilities along with technical staff are coming to an end. We will work with a broad base of media advocates by providing an insurance umbrella, offering more use of public buildings for media functions, especially for storage of valuable equipment, and establishing a jack location for existing public access channels to link to the new platform.” The future is only scary if you do not prepare for it.

Sustainable Economics Conference

I wish I could have made the Conference. I bought a ticket but the sustainable approach failed me.

Taking the 12:45 Route 3 from Rays in Clearlake should have got me there. We boarded and secured a large wheelchair at Twin Pines Casino which put us 10 minutes behind schedule to catch the Route 10 in Calistoga Southbound. I called The Vine and asked for a short hold. The dispatcher said she would try but Calistoga was at the limit of their radio reception.

As we had the Lincoln Bridge in sight, one minute late, we saw the 10 pull away. Now I’m down an hour waiting for the 3pm Route 10. I get to the Napa Transfer Station to catch the 4:30 29 Express to the North El Cerrito Bart. I wait and wait. Its 5:15. Another rider finds out the 29 Express is a turnaround and due to heavy traffic in American Canyon they are skipping the 4:30 and we’ll have to take the 5:30, too late to catch the Conference after a Bart trip to the 19th Ave Station. (by the way, the SELC directions map doesn’t have the Bart stations on it.)

It looks like Napa Vine is a sustainability barrier. Lake Transit drivers carry a company cell phone when they are out of radio range. As the Vine offices are at the transfer station someone could have walked over to the 29 Express platform to tell passengers the 4:30 wasn’t happening. I would have at least been able to catch the next Northbound 10 to catch the last Route 3 back to Lake County.

This was not the first time the Vine stranded me. Sustainability requires flexibility but also functionality. I guess I will have to follow the SELC online.