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 →
When asked a few years ago if someone with talent and desire to write plays should get an advanced degree in playwriting, I said unequivocally yes for two reasons:
I’m a huge advocate of graduate school of any sort. Graduate school is an indulgence that every one who can access, should. I don’t have a timeline for when, but I truly believe taking three or more years to think about things that interest you and make you passionate and advance your understanding of the world is absolutely essential—especially if you want to tell stories that you hope will mean something to an audience greater than your best buds and your mom.
As far as making theater goes, the significant career opportunities in our business are so few and far between that I would tell prospective students any leg up was worth considering seriously. For example, if your script was on a pile, or if you were applying for a directing fellowship, those letters M-F-A might advance your script/application up the stacks.
My advice to graduating MFAs used to be different too and extremely practical! As you’re thinking about that final year in the program focus on:
Having one fully realized “straight” play with no more than four characters is essential. The MFA is a launching moment and to launch in any significant way into the regional theater movement, your most realistic shot is to have one solid producible play in the most conventional sense.
Make connections with all of the play development centers (Playwrights’ Center, New Dramatists, the Lark, Sundance, Playwrights Foundation, etc.) and apply to every opportunity they offer. In other words, find an artistic home to develop as an artist. This advice hasn’t changed.
But as I experience the work the next generation of theater makers is creating and in what context, I’m beginning to shift my advice. More importantly, I’m convinced now that I’m not the right person to give advice. I’m not being humble here, but rather acknowledging that I’m giving advice from the vantage point of having a salary and health insurance and that my advice is becoming less and less practical and perhaps makes assumptions about what people want out of a career that are more about what I think they should want.
But here goes some advice anyway.
Don’t apply for an MFA in anything right out of undergrad. If you desire to be a storyteller from any vantage point (playwright, director, dramaturg, actor, designer, stage manager, etc.) spend some time living in the world and figuring out what stories you want to tell. Travel, work strange jobs, taste exotic foods, become a marathon runner, join the Peace Corps, and engage everything that feels unfamiliar.
Don’t take a menial job in a large theater just to be near established theater artists. I think the worst thing an aspiring young theater artist can do is to learn too soon the business-as-usual way of making theater.
See as much of every kind of art that you can take in. Close down your Facebook and Twitter accounts for days at a time and read novels, listen to authors read their works on podcasts, go to museums, operas, symphonies, rock concerts, and ballets.
Volunteer at places unrelated to theater. Understand that theater is a part of a whole, but not the whole.
Fall in love. Break up. Fall in love again. This can be love with people, other artists, art objects, remote camping sites, whatever.
Then after all of that, if you still find that you must tell stories, and that you must live in proximity to a stage, by all means apply to an MFA program. It will be the greatest gift you can give yourself.
For those of you graduating in the spring with your MFA:
Maybe go to New York, but maybe not.
Don’t worry about getting an agent.
Find one or two or three other people you want to make theater with and live in the same city, or rural town, or on a tropical island together, and make theater according to your mutually agreed upon definition.
Tell the stories you want to tell and only the stories the want to tell. You will get many opportunities to tell stories other people want to tell; minimize these gigs.
Introduce yourself to every theater maker who inspires you, but don’t bother to try and ingratiate yourself into institutions or try to get next to artistic directors whose work you don’t admire just on the off chance they might throw an opportunity your way. There will be plenty of time in your career for compromising and groveling. Save your knees as long as possible.
Think big. Big plays, big performances, big social change, big bold theater that will burn the house down.
For anyone trying to sort out how to make it in this business: there is no formula. As artists, I personally think rules and boundaries and formulas and systems and even institutions can dampen the possibilities for our artistic expression. And nothing can be more harmful to creativity than believing there is one path toward it.
So get an MFA, maybe. Move to New York, maybe. Write only two-handers, maybe. Buy bottles of expensive wines for Artistic Directors, maybe. But for sure, find a way to tell the stories that will choke you to your very death if they aren’t let out, and don’t make any assumptions that there’s a singular career trajectory for the theater artist.
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.