I’m reading Dave Eggers’ new novel, The Circle. It takes place inside a Google-like company by the same name. As the book begins, the Circle’s latest hire, Mae, tours the sparkling, communitarian campus, “400 acres of brushed steel and glass.” “It’s heaven,” she thinks.
The walkway wound around lemon and orange trees and its quiet red cobblestones were replaced, occasionally, by tiles with imploring messages of inspiration. ‘Dream,’ one said, the word laser-cut into the red stone. ‘Participate,’ said another.
There are dozens of these word-bricks, but Eggers just names a few: “Find Community.” “Imagine.” “Breathe.” And yes, you guessed it, “Innovate.”
You know where this is going. It’s not heaven at all. It’s Orwellian hell, Steve Jobs meets L. Ron Hubbard. The people are warm, brilliant, and aglow with a perfectly modulated passion, like those shiny charismatics who dominate the Ted Talks. In other words, Eggers novel describes something like the Platonic ideal of a 24/7 “innovation summit.” It’s a nightmare.
New Dramatists, New York
I’m a writer and I live and work with writers. The stone steps to the old Midtown Manhattan church that houses New Dramatists don’t have words etched in them. No one needs to be told to imagine or, since they’re with us for seven-year residencies, to find community. The domed window above the wooden entrance doors does have words, painted in gold: Dedicated to the Playwright. That’s all. We dedicate our service to their efforts and, because art leads change and not the other way around, their work cuts a slow path to the new.
Most of us there—writers, staff, board—swing between incredulity and fury at the rampant spread of this innovation obsession in the arts. So I have to confess: I come to bury innovation not to praise it.
Here’s how the siren call of innovation sounds from our church: It signals another incursion on the arts by corporate culture, directive funders, and those who have drunk the Kool-Aid of high-tech hip and devotional entrepreneurism. It announces the rise of a cult of consultancy, already a solid wing of the funding community. One New York foundation, which formerly gave out sizable general operating support, now requires each grantee to send two senior staffers to spend several mornings at the feet of turnaround king Michael Kaiser, as a prerequisite for payment and any future funding. You follow? They hire a high-paid macher to teach us how to fundraise even as they stop funding us.
The world is changing radically and so must we. That’s the agenda underlying the innovation mandate. This change agenda is actually a critique, a presumption that arts organizations are calcified, failed. Of course, most of us share this critique and believe it’s true of every company but our own. More, it implies that our companies, many five or six decades old, don’t know how to adapt.
It’s not that we’ve failed to adapt; we have adapted and adapted, twisting our adaptive muscles into shapes for this funding trend or that initiative, for the new, improved, think it, do it, be it, say it, better believe it world of organizational reorganization until we’re blue in the core values. We have lost sight of the ocean, in which we may be sinking, and keep returning to the mechanism of the boat.
Where innovation thinkers see ill-adaptive organizations, I see decades of unsupported art and artists, energy and money thrown at institutional issues, as if this can make the art relevant. I’d suggest it’s the funding community that needs to take a deep, humble look at its assumptions and, most urgently, at the human relations and power dynamics of money and expertise. Doctor, please innovate thyself.
Change is no measure of success. Do we do what we say we do? Do we do it well? If we don’t, we shouldn’t be funded. If we are worthy of funding, we have proved we’re capable of self-determination.
So why did New Dramatists attend an “innovation summit,” if this is all so wrongheaded, and why did we apply to EmcArts Innovation Lab? It’s simple. Funding and learning, in that order. We’re as desperate for new funding as the next guy. We’ve been known to pretzel our priorities to get some. The Lab came with money; the summit with a roomful of important funders. Can we admit this? Both have brought us new colleagues and new insights. Continue reading →
The rhythm of my life as a writer has been fairly consistent the past five years. I usually incubate with a new project for a season, which means staying home and writing in between childrearing, housekeeping and wandering the grocery aisles with a make-up bag full of coupons in the middle of the night. This phase requires a decent knack for multi-tasking, but incubation is nevertheless a pretty serene time for our household. My favorite part of playwriting is writing in a room alone, as this is when I am most often surprise myself: summoning forgotten words, a repressed point of view, a turn of phrase I couldn’t have wrought with my conscious mind. I try not to judge myself.
It’s a great time of forgetting, both in writing and in family life. We watch the leaves fall off an old oak in our backyard that only appears aged, because we live on the high plains where the wind steals so many saplings. I write in the morning. In the afternoon, we gather leaves and press them into the pages of the Professor’s dictionary collection. At night, I drink tea.
The hatching of a play, which occurs in a rehearsal room, has its own joys, but they aren’t particularly serene ones. All of a sudden I’m surrounded by other voices, voices not so enamored by my clever turns of phrase and who challenge the sense of things at every corner. This is all necessary and good and part of making a play better than I could have ever imagined alone, but it’s tough on my sense of equilibrium. Sometimes actors make text suggestions because they can see into a character better than I can, and sometimes they make them because they want more lines.
Sometimes I immediately have a terrific solution for a scene, and sometimes the director has to buy me coffee and insist I read a scene aloud in order to make clear that it is not her problem; it is mine. The theater tends to attract mercurial, volatile people who seem perfectly rational one day and in desperate need of meds the next. During the hatching period, I do not watch leaves fall from the trees. I do not drink tea. I battle insomnia. I thank God every night that my dramaturg believes the best place to crack a scene is at the bar, where we drink vodka.
What has become increasingly clear as the children have grown older is how the discombobulation I feel in the rehearsal room is reflected back home, when I am away. The Professor is heroic in his attempts to keep hearth and home, but when the gentle rhythms of our family life are disrupted, the children rattle their cages. During my recent trip to open a play in Denver, one child hid in a corner of the library and cut off her hair. The other became completely neurotic about her potty training and started stashing the dirty underpants behind her dresser. The smell lingers still. One child called me everyday; the other refused to talk to me on the phone at all. One cried every afternoon when the babysitter picked her up from school. The other refused to go bed at night but wandered the house until midnight, finally falling asleep on the stairs, the sofa, the kitchen floor. The Professor had to carry her into daycare every morning, asleep on his shoulder.
Part of me feels terribly guilty, of course. I hate that everyone struggles while I am away. There’s nothing more heart wrenching than hearing a plaintive voice on the telephone asking me to come home. I’m scared that when they are older, my girls will spend hours complaining to their therapists about how their mother abandoned them for her art, which, let’s be honest, is not world-changing, particularly lucrative, or great. I’m not re-inventing the form. It’s just what I have chosen to do with my particular gifts at this point in history when a middle-class woman with a willing partner has the privilege of doing so.
Another part of me, however, doesn’t feel guilty at all. This part hopes that when they’re all grown up, my girls will do the same. I hope they create art, grow cities, make scientific discoveries or religious ones. I hope they leave their kids with their partners or with their parents in order to travel to Bosnia, because they want to apprentice with a Bosnian basket weaver for a spell, and I hope they have partners who understand and appreciate the importance of Bosnian basket weaving. And yes, I hope they aren’t shitty parents who lose all perspective over Bosnian basket weaving and ignore their kids. I mean, God forbid they turn out to be little narcissists who follow every whim to the ends of the earth. But I have to believe that there’s a time and a place for playmaking, for spiritual retreat, for building a museum on a distant shore, indeed, for Bosnian basket-weaving, because whether good, great or mediocre, the act of creation is important.
What about you? How do you balance working away from home with providing consistency for your kids? How do you feel about it?
Catherine Trieschmann is a playwright living in Kansas with her husband and two children. Her play The Most Deserving can be seen this year at the Denver Center Theater for Performing Arts and off-Broadway with the Women’s Project Theater. This post originally appeared on Howlround.
When Backstage “let go” Los Angeles theater writer Dany Margolies last January for “restructuring” reasons we knew it was a bad omen of darker times to come for the 53-year-old theater industry trade publication. Now, more bad news arrives: As of the April 11th print edition, Backstage will stop printing theater reviews, online or in print. Any of them. All of them. Gone. Done. Period.
Last week, The Executive Editor Daniel Holloway of Backstage sent the following memo:
An analysis of metric data by our executive team led to the conclusion that too few readers are engaging our reviews for Backstage to continue to invest resources in producing them. We will be shifting those resources primarily to the creation of additional advice, news, and features content.
Got that? No more critical analysis of the art itself. No more artistic assessment or creative survey of what is actually happening on stage. Who wants to read that? Apparently, no one. Instead, we want “advice, news and features”. The dumbing-down of American culture continues.
To Halloway and Backstage, “metric data” and investment resources appear to be more important than remembering that the name of their publication includes the word “stage”.
Ironically, the announcement from Backstage on Friday came after HowlRound — committed to modeling a commons-based approach to advancing the health and impact of the not-for-profit theater — devoted the week on a discussion of theater criticism.
In the ether of our online reality, are “User Comments” and Yelp reviews written by “people like us” holding more sway than a studied critique by an arts journalist? Do we now trust home-written blogs more than art experts? In the lightning-fast instantaneous tech-world of Tweeting and texting and Instant Messaging, are critical reviews being left behind and lost in the dust like relics from another era?
Or is the evil of Corporate Thinking overtaking and poisoning our art form? Are CEO’s of Arts Organizations — and Arts Publications — focused only on the bottom-line and not enhancing the art form they are meant to serve?
Or does the problem lie at the feet of the quality of dramatic criticism itself? Without question, the time has come to take a fresh look at and, perhaps, reinvent a new form of dramatic criticism that can respond in new ways to what happens on stage. What is that fresh approach? What will it look like? Which journalists have the skill, intelligence and artistic sensibility to lead the way?
The arts community has been complaining about the quality of dramatic criticism almost as long as it’s moaned about the dying of theater as an art form itself. As both art form and journalist run the risk of becoming more and more marginalized in today’s Info-Age, the more vital and essential both are revealed to be.
Intelligent and insightful arts journalism and dramatic criticism is essential for a healthy dialogue between the journalist, the audience and the art form we all love. The sad announcement last week from Backstage is another stab in the heart of the theatre community and a further silencing of the critical voice. Let’s not forget that the word critical not only means “to judge, find fault or criticize”. It also means “crucial, indispensable, and urgently needed”.
Something profound happened on the first Tuesday in November, something I’m still trying to digest fully. To my mind the election results represent a victory of love over hate, of human dignity over market forces, of public service over private gain. Those who spewed hate toward women weren’t reelected. Those who insisted on heteronormativity as the only way were defeated handily, and those who spouted the rights of the wealthy to buy elections for the sake of perpetuating the private markets of their personal fortunes were sent packing. On that Tuesday, at least for a moment, we redefined public service as something meant to benefit everyone, not just the few.
John Adams wrote in a letter to his son, “Public business, my son, must always be done by somebody. It will be done by somebody or another. If wise men decline it, others will not; if honest men refuse it, others will not.” Most of us would agree, though deeply flawed, our Founding Fathers were wise men who created a frame for a political system that in many ways has served us well.
I feel and see more deeply the cost of a commitment to public service. The long view of history reminds me that the $4.2 billion we spent on this last election is recent history. And it also makes me ask: Are too many honest men and women refusing public service, making room for too many politicians driven by ego and the desire for personal gain? And because this is what I do for a living, it makes me think about the history of the regional theater movement—about our leaders, past and present. And I ask: How do we currently as a field define our relationship to public service? We take a tax break, and like churches and libraries, we offer something of value to the public. When we say we choose to make our art in the context of nonprofit theater, we embrace a form of public service—not for the sake of glamorous careers that include arriving in limos to the Tony awards and sipping champagne with the stars. I intentionally chose to work inside nonprofit theater because I had a deep desire to effect change in the world. But somewhere along the historical path of the nonprofit theater movement, public service to artists and a community ran head long into private desires for personal success. Like our political milieu the public good has gotten confused with private desires.
In both editing the report, In the Intersection: Partnerships in the New Play Sector by Diane Ragsdale, just released by The Center for the Theater Commons, and attending the convening that the report covers, I have a deeper understanding of the movement of history in our field from a purer sense of public service to a market-driven desire to both serve and survive. These historical shifts in mission and purpose aren’t simple, and they don’t happen over night. We didn’t go from John Adams to Mitt Romney without struggles of every kind. But if you are invested in the future of the nonprofit theater movement, I suggest you read this report closely (you can download it for free), because it will place you in the thick of history whose next chapter will be written by the readers of HowlRound, among others.
The meeting this report covers was, from my vantage point, remarkable. The participants are public servants struggling with increased market pressures—how to make a public good in the face of enormous obstacles. The report covers a historical shift from the very opening conversation between Rocco Landesman and Gregory Mosher, and that shift is more deeply explored in the second chapter in the conversation between Oskar Eustis and Robert Brustein. Eustis frames the very question that the report explores:
What strikes me as you talk Bob is that . . . everything you’re talking about is about being part of a larger history that stems back really to that beach in Provincetown in 1920 through to the present. And you talk about being engaged in the training and the discussion and the creation at all at once so that, in a way, you are creating a world of values that is separate. And that world of values is part of a larger history; but we haven’t talked about profit or commerce in any of this really. And I think that one of the difficult things is: Where do you find an alternative set of values in the world—where you can live inside an alternative set of conversations about “profit and loss”?
In pondering this question we must consider the history of our own movement. We must consider the values and the words of the founders of this movement like Robert Brustein and Zelda Fichandler who are still around and able to guide us—and not just when it’s to our advantage to do so, but even when that looking back questions our practices in the moment. The group of twenty-six nonprofit theater representatives, commercial producers, and artists that gathered for this conversation did exactly that. And in the looking backwards and forwards, all of us in that room felt perplexed about where the nonprofit theater movement stands now. We asked ourselves how we had gotten from there to here and most of the nonprofit participants, as you will read, were not convinced that here was what our founders meant when they argued that nonprofit status made sense for the theater. In one of the many honest and soul-searching moments in the report, Tony Taccone, artistic director of Berkeley Rep, tries to make sense of how we came to this moment in our history:
And so we’re trying to describe what happened to us. And trying to exercise a little bit of consciousness about where we want to go. Is there a creative progressive place we can go together as a community, as a culture? Because individualism, fame, money, materialism lead one another to an iceberg. But we all kind of need and want those things too; so it’s a really tricky road.
And so I sit here post-election pondering multiple American histories, the histories of presidents, and Constitutions, and theater movements. And I don’t want to argue that things should be as they once were. We don’t look back in order to go back, but rather to better choose what going forward looks like. I’m so grateful for the evolution of thought that has created the possibilities for new stories, not the least of which is my new story as a legally married person. But in this post-election bliss for many of us, it makes sense for us consider why we value public service, and why we’ve chosen a life in the nonprofit theater. Have we done it to succeed on personal terms or do we make art to make the world better?
Polly Carl is the director of the Center for the Theater Commons at Emerson College, and the editor of the online journal HowlRound.
The Fountain Theatre is dedicated to producing new plays that reflect the cultural diversity of Los Angeles and the the nation. To serve Latino/a audiences, we launched our 2012-13 season earlier this year with the West Coast Premiere of El Nogalar by Latina playwright Tanya Saracho.
“El Nogalar” (2012, Fountain Theatre)
Playwright Anne Garcia-Romero reports on the current state of Latino/a theater and the dream of creating a Latino/a Theatre Commons:
by Anne Garcia-Romero
In May 2012, Karen Zacarías, a playwright in residence at Arena Stage asked the Center for the Theater Commons to host an intimate conversation about the state of theater for U.S. Latino/a artists. A group of us met in D.C. It was a small gathering of theater artists from across the country representing diverse voices, but in no way intended to be representative of the breadth of the Latino/a theater scene. In the twenty-four stretch of the gathering, we talked about community, history, and action. We dreamed up a plan.
Celebrating Contemporary Latino/a Theater Theater can function as a reflection of our contemporary national narrative. The character journeys on a stage often help us better understand the complexities of our society. U.S. culture in the twenty-first century continues to move from a mono-cultural to a multi-cultural experience. However, U.S. theater currently does not always reflect this reality and therefore can perpetuate an outdated narrative. Contemporary Latino/a theater updates the U.S. narrative through presenting diverse cultural worlds that allow theater audiences to more fully understand the U.S. experience in the twenty-first century.
In 2012, Latino/a is a heterogeneous term that includes the diversity of all Spanish-speaking and indigenous cultures existing in the U.S. from Mexico, the Caribbean, Spain, Central and Latin America, in addition to the complexities which arise from the intersections of these cultures with non-Latino/a cultures. This definition highlights the globalization of the U.S. Latino/a community and mirrors the fact that life in the U.S. is now an intercultural reality. According to the 2010 U.S. census, 308.7 million people resided in the United States, of which 50.5 million (or 16 percent) were Latino/a. The Latino/a population hails from over twenty-two Latino/a cultural groups and was the fastest growing population from 2000 to 2010. U.S. theater production historically has only reflected a fraction of this diversity. Twenty-first century Latino/a theater artists are creating works that amply reflect this complexity. By embracing the current landscape of Latino/a theater, U.S. theaters not only present a view of contemporary Latino/a culture, they also provide their audiences with ways in which to more fully understand our multi-cultural U.S. experience.
Playwright Tanya Saracho
Creating a Commons A Latino/a Theater Commons acknowledges the gifts that Latino/a theater artists can share with each other by connecting Latino/a theater artists from across the U.S. to create a platform and promote the latest developments in the field of Latino/a theater. From artists who began their professional careers in the 1970s to those who recently completed their MFA training, a commons facilitates a vibrant, intergenerational conversation that reflects contemporary U.S. Latino/a theater. Building upon the foundation of the past and highlighting the realities of the present, a Latino/a Theater Commons creates new models of engagement and presentation of Latino/a theater that will not only illuminate the wide expanse of the field but will allow audiences to update the U.S. narrative by experiencing multi-cultural worlds on stage that reflect an ever-diversifying national reality.
Highlighting our History From the success of Luis Valdez’ 1978 production of Zoot Suit in Los Angeles to Maria Irene Fornes’ Obie-Award winning New York City production of Fefu and Her Friends in 1977, U.S. Latino/a theater continues to grow and thrive from coast to coast. Through the support of organizations such as the Ford Foundation and the Lila Wallace–Reader’s Digest Fund, several U.S. regional theaters have provided platforms for the continued development of Latino/a theater artists. The INTAR Playwrights Workshop in New York City, South Coast Repertory’s Hispanic Playwrights Project in Costa Mesa, California and The Mark Taper Forum’s Latino Theatre Initiative in Los Angeles became centers of training, collaboration and conversation from 1978 to 2005. These programs helped launch the careers of a generation of Latino/a theater artists including Pulitzer prize winners Nilo Cruz and Quiara Alegría Hudes, Academy-Award nominee José Rivera, Obie award winners Caridad Svich and Kristoffer Diaz and MacArthur Genius grant winner Luis Alfaro.
INTAR, founded in 1972 by Max Ferrá, is one of the longest-running companies producing Latino/a theater in the United States. Maria Irene Fornes created the INTAR Hispanic Playwrights-in-Residence Laboratory (1978-1991) and trained some of the most widely produced Latino/a playwrights in the U.S. including Cruz, Svich, Alfaro, Cherrie Moraga, Migdalia Cruz and Octavio Solis. Svich states,
Fornes, leading by example, did not require that the playwrights in the Lab address any ethnically specific subject matter or theme. Through daily visualization exercises, the writers were asked to discover the work within them, to create the forms that suited their visions, and under Fornes’ rigorous, watchful eye, to speak the truth about their worlds.
Under the current leadership of Lou Moreno, INTAR continues to produce new work by Latino/a playwrights.
José Cruz Gonzalez
Hispanic Playwrights Project (HPP), 1985-2004, created by José Cruz Gonzalez and later directed by Juliette Carrillo, featured a yearly summer festival of new works at South Coast Repertory bringing together new plays written by Latino/a playwrights. For many playwrights, HPP provided a first professional theater development opportunity. The annual gathering launched the careers of many Latino/a theater artists including Octavio Solis, Rogelio Martinez, Karen Zacarías, Kristoffer Diaz, Quiara Alegría Hudes and Anne García-Romero.
The Latino Theatre Initiative (LTI), 1992-2005, at the Mark Taper Forum, was designed to diversify the Taper’s audience base by offering theatrical programming relevant to the Latino/a community while also providing access to emerging Latino/a artists who reflected the diversity of the city of Los Angeles. Founded by José Luis Valenzuela and later co-directed by Luis Alfaro and Diane Rodriguez, LTI developed new works through in-house readings, festivals and yearly writers’ retreats.
Playwright Luis Alfaro
An Action Plan: Generating New Models In our dream for a Latino/a Theater Commons, we build upon the foundation of the past and the momentum of the present to create four initiatives that will continue to advance the field of U.S. Latino/a theater.
1. The Los Angeles Theatre Center, under the direction of José Luis Valenzuela, will produce a festival of ten Latino/a plays over the course of the 2014-15 season. This festival seeks to present ten diverse plays that will mirror the complexity of the U.S. Latino/a community.
2. Latino/a Theater Commons will pilot a bi-annual conference of new Latino/a work hosted by the Theatre School at DePaul University in Chicago. The Festival will honor and be inspired by previous programs such as the Hispanic Playwrights Project, but be reconceived for the twenty-first century to allow for live and online participation and new methods of collaboration through workshops and focus groups on specific theatrical disciplines.
3. Latino/a Theater Commons will launch an online platform, Cafe Onda(Wave Cafe). This platform will be created as an online community and conversation about the current state of the Latino/a theater in the twenty-first century. Cafe Onda will contain articles, blogs and live streaming of theater events and will be linked to HowlRound, an online journal of the Theater Commons.
4. Latino/a Theater Commons will broaden the conversation by working with an expanded national cohort of Latino/a theater artists to convene in 2013 and solidify our efforts in implementing these plans that will generate a new national narrative for U.S. theater. Members of the Steering Committee who will be involved in planning this meeting include as of this publication:
Kinan Valdez (Stage Director; Producing Artistic Director, El Teatro Campesino, San Juan Bautista, CA)
José Luis Valenzuela (Stage Director; Artistic Director, Los Angeles Theater Center, Professor of Theater, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles CA)
Patricia Ybarra (Theatre Studies Scholar; Assistant Professor of Theatre, Brown University, Providence RI)
Karen Zacarías (Playwright; Resident Playwright–Arena Stage, Washington DC)
These projects will provide a multifaceted view of contemporary Latino/a theater. Through exploring, developing and advocating for new Latino/a plays, all four initiatives generate necessary conversations about the diverse make-up of U.S. society. We respectfully share this plan in the hopes that a Latino/a Theater Commons will advance the state of Latino/a theater while also allowing audiences to update the U.S. narrative at the start of the twenty-first century.
Anne Garcia-Romero’s plays have been developed and produced most notably at the NYSF/Public Theater, Summer Play Festival (Off-Broadway), The Mark Taper Forum, Hartford Stage, Borderlands Theater, and South Coast Repertory. Her newest play, Provenance, was part of the 2012 Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference. She is currently writing a book on contemporary Latina playwrights. She’s an Assistant Professor of Theater at the University of Notre Dame and an alumna of New Dramatists.
We come to painting, to poetry, to the stage, hoping to revive the soul. And any artist whose work touches us earns our gratitude. – Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.
For months my life has been overwhelmed by a series of mundane transactions of various complexity usually costing me buckets of money. If we let it, life will drown us in transactions. The life of transactions is not a satisfying way to live. I prefer transcendence over transaction. Which is why I have chosen to work in the theater—for those moments in the rehearsal room that lead to something revelatory, something glorious or more than anything I could accomplish on my own. No money is exchanged, and in the very best moments transcendence feels within reach.
Money Trumps Love
During my fifteen years of making new plays, I’ve watched our field become more obsessed with the transactional and less obsessed with making good art. If I’m here for no other reason today, it’s to push you as artists and people who love the theater to rethink this momentum.
From the transcendent to the ugly. I was working on a play I was wildly passionate about, one that I wanted to see produced—a play that I believed to be sublime, transcendent, my reason for getting up in the morning these last fifteen years. There were a million issues surrounding this play, as there always are about every play. Multiple producers were interested in producing it, multiple agents were involved in figuring the rights and the royalties and the production path. This is typical. The further the play developed, the more clear the possibility that we had a “hit” on our hands. Because I work in the not-for-profit theater, always in a role that is advocating for the artists and the work, I didn’t have any financial stake in the play. I just loved it. I loved the characters, the language, the story—it was the best of what is possible in the theater, the best of what is possible in my work. I sat in rehearsals and listened and gave hardly any notes and got a little weepy from time to time and talked to the playwright and the director and colleagues. I was so in love with this process. But as the stakes were raised—the money, the players—I could see things beginning to unravel. I became privy to lies and deceit and I became obsessed with saving the integrity of the process that I had been charged to help oversee. We all say we are in it for higher purposes, but even in the theater, money trumps soul, and destroys love. I called one of the agents who was spreading particularly heinous lies (and let me clarify he wasn’t the only one lying, the lies were abundant from all camps). I was calm, trying to clarify the truth, intent on protecting what I thought were the interests of the writers. He actually said to me, “Who do you think you are calling me? I don’t give a rat’s ass about you and your version of the truth. For all I care you could die and it wouldn’t matter to me or this play.”
I walked back to the apartment where I was staying. I got a haircut along the way. I took a shower. I threw away the clothes I was wearing. I bought a new traveling hat. I thought about getting a new tattoo. I moved my flight to leave a day early, and went home. I walked away from that project for good and I walked away from making theater under those conditions.
I didn’t say I wasn’t dramatic.
In exploring the roots of the righteousness that informs my sense of theater making, I think it’s important for me to share some of the values that have shaped my thinking—to make sense of why an agent wishing my death doesn’t align with what I seek in my career. It’s important to note here, that it’s easier to walk away from something when you know what that something is. I’ve been very lucky, and yes, I mean lucky to have worked at the top of this field, with some of the best companies and best theater makers in the country. I’ve also spent significant time working with small companies, young artists, the uncertain, and the unknown. And I’ve learned, and perhaps it’s my failing, that I’m unwilling to make theater at all costs, and at the expense of basic human kindness and courtesy.
My instincts about where the arts live in relationship to culture come from my childhood. Art saved me. It gave me hope and purpose. I grew up in a family of very little financial and consequently cultural means in Elkhart, Indiana. These are the specific things that saved me; the handful of books my parents had on hand in the house that included a very old edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and the full collection of the Hardy Boys series and the Little House on the Prairie boxed set, plus National Geographics that my grandparents gave us when they finished reading them. The Public Library saved me. By the time I entered high school I had read every novel Charles Dickens had written, all of the Lord of the Rings, Anna Karenina, The Grapes of Wrath—well you get the gist. My public library card was my ticket from there to here. I did not attend theater in high school except for our high school productions. We not only couldn’t afford to attend theater, but cultural engagement wasn’t something of value in my family, economic survival was always front and center.
When I came to the theater, and I should specify, to the not-for-profit theater, I was instantly moved by what I began to read of its history. The vision of our founders expressed perfectly why theater and the arts in general mattered to me. Listen to these words from a recent address given by Zelda Fichandler, the founding artistic director of Arena Stage in DC:
What drew us to the way we went? What was the vision, the inciting incident? Actually, there was no incident, no high drama, there was simply a change of thought, a new way of looking at things, a tilt of the head, a revolution in our perception. We looked at what we had – the hit-or-miss; put-it-up, tear-it-down; make-a-buck, lose-a-buck; discontinuous; artist-indifferent; New York-centered ways of Broadway, and they weren’t tolerable anymore, and it made us angry. We thought there had to be a better way, and we made that up out of what was lying around ungathered and, standing on the shoulders of earlier efforts in America and examples common in other countries, we went forward, some of us starting small, some like the Guthrie, big.
The fabric of the thought that propelled us was that theatre should stop serving the function of making money, for which it has never been and never will be suited, and start serving the revelation and shaping of the process of living, for which it is uniquely suited, for which it, indeed, exists. The new thought was that theatre should be restored to itself as a form of art.
Yes! The idea that theater should “start serving the revelation and shaping the process of living”—I say again yes! The idea that artists wanted to build a life, not a hit-or-miss, from this moment to that moment, career in theater. These are the ideas and values I can commit to. The not-for-profit theater was about merging art and life. The ideas of our founders were so bold, so aspirational. And the dream was not a dream of selling tickets and making money. Nobody left New York to get rich. They left New York to seek meaning and build a life around what they loved most.
Once we made the choice to produce our plays, not recoup an investment but to recoup some corner of the universe for our understanding and enlargement, we entered the same world as the university, the museum, the church and became like them, an instrument of civilization.
Going to Church
In restoring theater to itself, as Zelda implores, we must find ways to distinguish the parts of it that live in the market and the parts that belong to all of us.
Lewis Hyde, again from his book, The Gift, differentiates the church, or the university, or the museum, from the market:
It is the cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people, while the sale of the commodity leaves no necessary connection.
When the audience feels it is really at one with the theatre, when audience and theatre-people can feel they are both the answer to one another, and that both may act as leaders to one another, there we have the Theatre in the truest form. To create such a theatre is our real purpose. (p.72)
Fichandler, Hyde, and Clurman give me clarity. They help me understand why the transactions that got us here today: filling up the tank, buying a cup of coffee, paying our bills, may have proved satisfying but they weren’t our reason for getting up this morning. We got up this morning because we believe in the bond of community, the bond that we form with our collaborators and the bond that is our communion with each other and with the audience. Continue reading →