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 →
I take my title from that great triumvirate of American philosophers: Moe, Larry, and Curly, known in poststructuralist circles as Les Trois Stooges. With unerring precision they captured the complicated essence of American life—and by extension American theatrical life—in their expert revision of the motto of Alexandre Dumas’ three Musketeers: “One for all and all for one.” To which the incisive Curly added, “And every man for himself.” Yes that’s my subject, the one and the all, for each other and for themselves.
I’m not sure how to talk about my subject, in part because I don’t know what language to use. I’ve lost track of the language of our art. After seventeen years of running a nonprofit, it’s been replaced by the lingo of strategic planning and program assessment. It’s been trumped by meaning-deplete, market-aping clichés of our professional shoptalk—branding, innovation, entrepreneurial—and by the hollow repetitions of grant-speak that have sucked the specificity out of such essentials as, “community,” “vision,” “values.”
Somewhere, maybe, lives a root language of theater for us to speak with one another. Somewhere, maybe, is a tongue with words for what we do, how it lands on the human spirit, how we share space and time, story, myth, intention, and feeling. Somewhere there’s an idiom of our being together—a dialect of presence. I wish we could pledge allegiance to an ever-new coinage: the shaky, groping, overheated, imprecise, exuberant, vulnerable, earnest diction of mid-discovery.
The Living Theatre, NYC.
One phrase kept surfacing, as I prepared to write this. It’s from Julian Beck, who, as you may know, back in 1947, founded, with his wife Judith Malina, the still-living Living Theatre. Beck’s meditations read like rabbinical fire: fervent, philosophical, ecstatic. They burn for a truer theater and, more importantly, a better world. Amidst the flames, there’s an almost throwaway statement; its simplicity has haunted me. 1962. New York City. Beck writes to himself: “I do not like the Broadway theater, because it does not know how to say hello.”
Fifty years have passed since he wrote those words, sixty-six since the Becks started their theater. The American theater has in that time exploded—Off Broadway, Off-Off, regional theater, alternative regional theater, community-based theater. The Living Theater’s experiments in poetry, politics, company, global activism have, likewise, exploded, and even those whose sole image of the Becks has them naked and chanting in the streets or against a massive, backlit scaffold demanding “Paradise Now” are, in some way, heirs to their experiments and ameliorative ambitions. We are all, I wish to believe, enemies of the kind of falseness Beck finds on Broadway, where, he claims,
The tone of voice is false, the mannerisms are false, the sex is false, ideal, the Hollywood world of perfection, the clean image, the well pressed clothes; the well scrubbed anus, odorless, inhuman, of the Hollywood actor, the Broadway star. And the terrible false dirt of Broadway, the lower depths in which the dirt is imitated, inaccurate.
I want to know how to say hello. I want our artists to know. Maybe that’s why I can’t get the phrase out of my head, why I repeat it to you today. I want to greet you from the deepest part of me and hear from the deepest in you. I want nothing less from our theater. I want theaters to feel like rooms. I want what passes in them to engender intimacy, even if the performances are wild, flamboyant, artificial things. I want to speak in your ear and have you speak in mine. I want performance that feels like revelation. I want to be in it—whatever it may be—together. I want to know how to say hello.
Specifically, I long for a language of individual distinction. Somewhere in the decline of critical attention, the rise of celebrity, and the homogenization of production, we’ve lost the knack for celebrating the specificities of talent. What makes one artist distinct from another? What are the unique gifts of this writer, that director, each actor? How can we point the way to those singularities in words—the way one writes or plays or moves from what one is, from the fullness of the available self? What is the “I” from whence the individual speaks to us, the something that novelist Marilynne Robinson calls “incandescence,” “that presence, shaped around ‘I’ like a flame on a wick, emanating itself….” How does what we receive from the world get translated through the artist’s unique perspective and imagination and, once translated, how does it, to use her great phrase, emanate itself? If art is, as a painter once said, “nature as seen through a temperament,” how can we, as collaborators, teachers, co-citizens, nourish artistic temperament and celebrate it?
According to the voluble Harold Clurman, who talked into being the seminal Group Theatre of the 1930s, it’s only in the company of others that the individual can reach full flower. Clurman writes of the Group: “We believe that the individual can achieve his fullest stature only through the identification of his own good with the good of his group, a group which he must help to create.” Is this true: the individual reaches fullest stature only by tying his own good to that of the group? Doesn’t the individual gain stature from the spotlight, from having us stare at him until, in our eyes, he grows huge, even mythic?
This is really what I want to address here: the individual and the group, the “I” and the “we” of the theater. How we fulfill ourselves. How we greet one another, treat one another. How hard it is to reconcile one and all. My themes are lifted from Clurman: The individual. Fullest stature. Identification of personal good with group good. The group each must help create.
How do we reconcile these separate excitements, these seemingly distinct realms: the independent, maybe even solitary creator—or actor, director, designer—and the genius of the group? It’s a tough one. I spend my days advocating and making space for independent artists, even as I long for company. Artistic freedom and individual voice on one side, inspiring collaboration and common good on the other. The struggle to reconcile the ambitions of “I” and “we” has plagued the American theater for a hundred years. This tension between individual and group is, I believe, a defining challenge of our theater, probably our culture. All for one and one for all or every man for himself? The Three Stooges agree.
The fusion of individual talent and collective energy fuels great theater. It has always been so. The history of dramatic literature is inseparable from the history of the acting company: Shakespeare and the King’s Men, the Troupe de Molière, Sheridan’s Drury Lane, Chekhov and the Moscow Art Theatre, Brecht, Churchill, Walcott, Fugard—and on and on—fresh theatrical language forged where playwrights and players adventure together.
There are two ways, history also tells us, to sustain a theater in the United States: the first way is to institutionalize, to establish an organization that is viewed as essential to the community or place in which it grows, and to maintain that entity, even beyond the career-span of the people who initially give it life. The second way to sustain a theater here, the harder way, is to balance the evolving needs of the individual artist—voice and ambition—with the evolving group genius, to balance the needs of self-determination and those of the common good. This is the harder way.
In institutional life, human beings are for the most part replaceable; they serve, necessarily and rightly, institutional identity. In company or group culture, each member must be reckoned with, must be given their lead. Care and feeding, of individual and company, goes both ways. If this second approach—that which holds the individual and the group in equitable esteem—were easy, the history of our theater wouldn’t be strewn with the corpses of ensembles and company-founded theaters.
“A group which he must help to create”—that was Clurman’s dictum. And that should be the test. Not whether someone—actor, playwright, business manager—was present at the founding, but is that someone, in a daily way, in a true way helping to create the group. Does she have a voice? Is he present in his fullest stature?
I love Mark Valdez’s formulation: “The process yields the aesthetics.” The way we make work is not merely as important as what we make. It is what we make. You can see it—with individual artists, as in the work of the vital companies populating our current seen/unseen landscape. Process reveals itself through result. Improvised art feels improvised, shared creation feels cooperative, the monastic project emanates its own fanatical purity, aristocratic creation feels refined, and democratic art feels welcoming. The way we say hello carries who we are.
Todd London is the author of The Artistic Home (Theatre Communications Group), Outrageous Fortune: The Life & Times of the New American Play, (with Ben Pesner, Theatre Development Fund), and a novel The World’s Room (Steerforth Press), among others. In 2009 he became the first recipient of TCG’s Visionary Leadership Award for an individual who has gone above and beyond the call of duty to advance the theater field as a whole. He has been the artistic director of New Dramatists since 1996 and, in 2001, he accepted a special Tony Honor on behalf of that long-lived, groundbreaking laboratory for playwrights. Todd also received the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism for his essays in American Theatre magazine.
We hear it a lot about playwriting—that there’s no money in it. Whether or not that’s actually true, I had the opportunity to talk about this issue recently when I met with a young playwright, a senior at Northwestern University’s Creative Writing for the Media Program, who wanted to pick my brain about how I’ve managed to make it as a career playwright.
But first: let’s try and define make it. I, like a lot of playwrights, struggle. I struggle to write, and to write well. I struggle to get productions, workshops, grants, commissions, and more. Like hundreds of other playwrights, I spend days putting together applications to get into conferences, festivals, and residencies. And, like hundreds of other playwrights, I receive many more rejection letters than congratulatory calls.
Second: let’s define career. If you mean a reliable paycheck—nope (see above). If you mean health benefits or financial security—not a chance. If you mean a profession that steadily moves forward, increasing in stature and scope and visibility… possibly… depends… could happen one day. As writers, so much is out of our control.
In 2010, New York magazine ran a brief piece on Bruce Norris (and his then-new play Clybourne Park) that’s always haunted me. To this day, I remember it vividly thanks to the number $19,000. This was how much Mr. Norris said he earned the year before. Earned. All year. This, from an acclaimed and brilliant writer, who’s had plays produced across the world. To me, this announcement was not only a brave thing to declare publicly, it was a revelation. After Todd London and Ben Pesner’s incredibly insightfulOutrageous Fortune, David Dower’s years of field study… there it was again, in bold print. In New York magazine. A monetary truth exposed.
It is indeed the rare playwright who gets to announce playwriting as a job, a real-life, full-time gig.
And I know this, I do. I knew it going into this field. And still, when this Northwestern student sincerely asked me “Is it worth it?” I found myself nostalgic for the days when I used to immediately answer that question with an unqualified, urgent, booming Yes. But these days, with a kid and a husband and responsibilities and more, my answer has grown in complexity. And, especially with young playwrights, I want to share open and honestly about where I am today with this notion of worth—of value.
Half of the time, and especially in a country where The Arts (and arts programs) are in a constant struggle for survival, my belief that the value of art trumps the value of cash remains unshaken. But then, the other half of the time, when the mail comes in and my school loans are due or my son needs a filling that isn’t covered by insurance…well, that’s where things get complicated. At what cost are we choosing to live the lives of playwrights? Or artists?
“Is playwriting worth it?” My answer to this student was: financially? For where I am today, right now? No. But… in almost every other aspect: yes. Playwriting is worth it. But why? With the amount of energy I spend on writing, the time away from my family, the funds I shell out to attend readings and workshops in other states with no guarantee of production, no guarantee that if I do get a production another one’s coming along, what is the value of playwriting? Or better yet, what can’t I put a price on?
“The Children” (2012, Theatre@Boston Court)
For me, it turns out the answer is collaboration. Or more specifically: a collaboration that works. The experience that I had working with director Jessica Kubzansky and dramaturg Emilie Beck on The Children couldn’t be measured in dollar signs. I was fortunate enough to work with two artists who attacked the play with great care and sensitivity, who asked incisive questions, who challenged my every line but never lost sight of the origins of the play’s beating heart. When collaboration works, you leap together. You dig together. You forgive together. When collaboration works, you learn to become a better artist, communicator, listener, leader, and follower.
How many other professions make this kind of deeply personal exchange possible? Where the work includes sharing who you are and why you are? And how do you place a value on that? Can you put a price on that conversation? That dialogue? That sharing of your core identity in pursuit of a common purpose and goal?
Collaborators build something together. We hear the phrase “the theater community” used often. And that’s what this collaboration built for me. A community. A home—for myself, for my play, for ideas and emotions and a mission. These are all things I greatly value—it’s what I hold dear.
Here’s what I want to say about the money part: wherever we go, we pay for the privilege of community. Governments have taxes. Clubs have fees. Religious organizations have tithes. It’s not exactly analogous, but maybe playwriting is like Social Security. It’s something you will always pay into because it provides you a social safety net. You contribute—with money and time and sacrifice—to a community of artists who shore you up, challenge your evolution, and provide you a place in the world. In this instance, the word value can literally mean a bargain.
Michael Elyanow is a playwright. The Children was produced in 2012 at The Theatre @ Boston Court. A Lasting Mark, commissioned by Hartford Stage, was part of Manhattan Theatre Club’s 2011 7@7 Reading Series. The Idiot Box, published by Samuel French, was produced at Open Fist and Naked Eye theatres. Ten-minute plays Banging Ann Coulter and Game/Over were Humana Festival finalists. Michael is currently writing a play commission for the Carleton College Department of Theatre & Dance.