I recently came across a series I emails I exchanged with my good friend, and mentor Cal Pritner, co-founder of the Illinois State University Theatre Department (some of his students included John Malkovich, Gary Sinise, Terry Kinney, Laurie Metcalf, Gary Cole) founder of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, and author of Speaking Shakespeare and co-author (with me) of Introduction to Play Analysis. In it, we were discussing the local versus the national, the value of virtuosity, and Mark Twain’s comment that if you want to know a man’s opinion, you have to find out where his corn pone comes from. I’m only going to share my own emails:
The quandary I find myself in centers, like so much, around corn pone. It's corn pone that I know you can relate to, Cal: I teach. And I'm not certain that you can successfully teach a new generation without a firm belief in the possibility of positive change. How can you demand that students devote the time and energy and sacrifice to become true artists if, at the same time, you don't believe that their efforts will be acknowledged, appreciated, rewarded, or make a damn bit of difference? I guess I can't. I can't look those kids in the eye and tell them that corporate America has everything in its stranglehold and nothing they do will make a damn bit of difference. I have to create a vision of possibility, of empowerment, of alternatives.
Perhaps my insistence on the importance of the local is my way of escaping the corporate stranglehold dilemma. On the level of small communities, even small communities within much larger communities, I think change is still possible. Perhaps that is why I don't focus my attention on a national conversation. You are right, the media is the key, and the media loves conflict. Give them Mel's Passion, give them Serrano's crucifix in urine, give them Mapplethorpe's bullwhip up the ass, and the media loves it -- conflict and controversy! Better than cockfighting! But if it can't be covered in 90 seconds, then it ain't gonna get covered.
But in a discussion group at the local Barnes and Noble, maybe people can discuss more meaningful and more subtle ideas. In a small theatre in which the patrons are made to feel welcome, perhaps a post show discussion can deal with subtle insights, feelings, and wisdom.
I wrack my brain hours on end to come up with a way around the corporate dilemma. It's just the way I'm built -- if I think something is wrong, and can be done better, I have to find a way to do it. When students look in my eyes, they have to see a commitment and a hope for a better future. If I don't have it, I can't teach them; I shouldn't teach them.
So that's where I come from, and where my ideas of community come from. It isn't simply because I live in Asheville, it's because Disney now owns Broadway and I can't see that as a viable alternative for artistry anymore. I search for an alternative.
I still am trying to find what my contribution will be, what idea I will have that will make a difference, what student I will teach that will carry some shred of my ideas forward. My legacy has to come through those I touch, those I teach, those who hear the words I say and read the words I write. I need to think of something new, something that might add something to the world.
That is what I struggle to do. If I focus on holding my family tight and finding the art that feeds my soul, then I will never have the focus and courage to see a new idea through to the end, because new ideas require dissatisfaction with the status quo. If I focused on seeking out those great artistic experiences, I may create a good life for myself and a few who surround me, but right now I don't know that that would be enough. I so very much would like it to be. I even hear voices telling me that "the quest for greatness is a disease; the real goal is goodness." And I try to live with that, but it is like I am pursued by intellectual Furies who will not let me rest.
I think something is wrong with America, and so something is wrong with American theatre. I think that the whole machine is going to break down, and in the not-too-distant future at that, and when it does, there will be a vacuum into which new ideas will have to rush. I need to prepare for that moment, or prepare my students for that moment, because if we haven't imagined a different way, then the status quo will simply morph and refill that vacuum and then we're doomed. We're in a transitionary age, and other models need to be imagined. I don't know if local arts are the answer – it is just a way to fly under the corporate radar for while and find space to think and create.