Tag Archives: artistic choice

The Coming-of-Middle-Age Story: “The merit in trying to communicate what it means to be human”

"Heart Song" at the Fountain Theatre

Mid-life journeys in “Heart Song” at the Fountain Theatre

by Rachel Ditor

I have read countless coming-of-age stories. As a teenager and young adult many of those stories were lifesavers. I still struggled but I didn’t feel alone anymore.

I’m discovering now a subset of this genre, the coming-of-middle age story.

I don’t feel I was adequately warned about this stage in life. Not sure who to complain to about this, but where are the educational films and pamphlets? Why don’t we have special parties that celebrate compromise as a significant achievement? Where are the guidebooks and diagrams that explain feeling conflicted is not a fleeting emotion but a way of life?

And that this isn’t actually bad. It’s challenging but it’s fascinating.

Plus, this whole thing about life having a definitive beginning and end is misleading. It cues you to think linearly. I’m not finding this very helpful. What if I conceive of the journey as a maze instead of a trajectory?

(An interesting, intriguing maze. No Minotaur.)

Our personal lives have many markers of progress. Most of these relate to our physical age—able to bear children, not able to bear children; can read the directions on the pill bottle, can’t read the stupid tiny directions on the fucking pill bottle.

Our professional lives (ok, mine) seem to lack definitive markers. What does “forward movement” really mean mid-career?

If I were motivated by money, I would have chosen another field, just about any other field. But I chose theater. So “escalating earning power” is not the definitive marker on the trail of progress.

“Artistic freedom.” Is that the next step forward, mid-career? But artistic freedom to some degree has always been part of the package as a theater artist, from the start. (Partly because we’re not perceived to be a threat to the mainstream.) Constraints of any kind often spur us to make theatrical discoveries we wouldn’t have otherwise.

Rachel Ditor

Rachel Ditor

I’m not even going to bother considering whether fame and acclaim are critical markers. First, I’m Canadian and we find that kind of striving a little distasteful. (It’s also distasteful to admit that.) Second, we put so much of ourselves into our work that outside opinions have limited impact. If you feel good about your work, someone may disagree with the value of the product, but that can’t tarnish the value of an experience that likely evolved over years. And likewise, a great review or pat on the back can’t redeem your experience of a shitty process and a disappointing product, one that also likely evolved over years. Years that you will never get back.

I’m getting off track. To be honest, my surprise at mid-life, mid-career is to discover I’m passionate and knowledgeable about my work, but uncertain about where to meaningfully expend my energy in what feels like a finite timeframe in a way it hadn’t before.

The only way I see to move forward with this uncertainty is to go back and ask myself: what gets me out of bed in the morning? (Beyond habit or gratitude.)

If I can name it, I can nurture it.

The merit in trying to communicate what it means to be human is being reaffirmed for me. I’ve recently felt the importance of ritual and the necessity of story to help us parse life. My experiences, personal and professional, have made me suspicious about the idea of acquiring or holding on to anything mid-career mid-life—just when acquiring and securing seems to be all the rage.

In my second coming-of-age it’s live performance that reminds me I am not alone in my struggle, and in my joy. I love that we make community simply by bringing people together in the same room at the same time to hear the same story. Maybe I’m finding the creation of fleeting community life-affirming because it is both temporary and meaningful. In a maze I can revisit the existentialist I was at twenty, but with more compassion. That might not be forward movement, but it is an interesting place to be. For now.

Rachel Ditor is the literary manager at the Arts Club Theatre in Vancouver, BC.  Her post appeared on HowlRound.

Artistic Choice or Financial Risk?

Art and commerce can make strange bedfellows in the world of nonprofit theater, especially in hard times. Can a theatre risk producing new work and still keep its doors open?  When should a theatre sell its soul to please audiences? Can a theatre focus too fearfully on the spreadsheet’s bottom line and violate the bottom line of its artistic mission and the leader who guides it?

The question can be asked right here in Los Angeles. Sheldon Epps has had to program the Pasadena Playhouse with commercial, crowd-pleasing fare to lift the company out of bankruptcy. But, at least, Sheldon remains at the helm. That’s not always the case.

Jeff Zinn has stepped down after 23 years as Artistic Director at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre. Among others, one reason seemed clear: the Board decided that the cutting-edge new work that Zinn championed — and was at the core of WHAT’s artistic mission — could no longer financially support the organization and its gorgeous (and expensive) new state-of-the-art 220 seat theatre. You gotta fill seats.

Jim Petosa

Olney Theatre Center’s Artistic Director Jim Petosa knows that for sure. He has led the Maryland landmark since 1994 and directed shows there well before that. On Petosa’s watch, the sprawling 14-acre campus north of Washington DC  has built a new mainstage, an intimate theater lab, and an outdoor amphitheater for summer Shakespeare.

As Olney’s artistic leader, Petosa has confronted both financial and artistic struggles. In 2010, the theater faced a $6 million debt and a 5 percent drop in subscriptions. Olney added more revivals of family-friendly shows instead of the more cutting edge theater Petosa favored. The overall tone of season 2011 at Olney has been demonstrably tried, true — and commercial. The strategy seems to be working, but for Petosa, the artistic challenges lie elsewhere.

It has just been announced that he will step down as artistic director at the end of this year.

“I think sometimes personal artistic ­ambitions and institutional ­artistic ambitions don’t necessarily meet,” he says.

The sad truth gets sadder: The family-friendly programming at Olney is not viewed by the theater’s board or its audiences as an “unconscionable compromise,” says Petosa. Indeed, they “seem to be responding to these programming ideas with enthusiasm and passion.”

This is what scares us.

Joy Zinoman, a longtime colleague and friend, says Petosa is “a beloved figure as a director — high energy, very warm, very positive; filled with ideas.”

But Zinoman, who stepped down herself in 2010 after 35 years as founding artistic director at Studio Theatre in Washington, questions the road that Petosa and Olney have taken. “Jim is not a person who just wants to do commercial work. In his heart, I don’t think he’s that at all. I would myself not agree that the way to attract an audience is to do that kind of work.”

Even in a bad economy?

“Even so,” she says. “I believe that it is possible to lead an audience. You have to lead an audience and just doing ‘The Sound of Music’ again, or ‘The Christmas Carol’ again, I’m not sure that’s the way to build a theater. I mean, it might solve your problem in the moment, but it’s not going to get you anywhere.”