Monday, July 16, 2007

Locating the Tribe

It has been very interesting following the discussion of Daniel Quinn's idea of the tribe as it might pertain to the theatre. One thing that keeps coming up is what might be called the Hobbesian View of Human Nature (or Siren Song of Individual Success). Don got this ball rolling:

My experience has been that when you happen to find that tribe of people willing to sacrifice their personal ambition for the overall good of the tribe of theater, two things can be labeled as truth. First, those most willing to forgo personal success have found they simply don't have the skill, ability or talent to justify a lot of personal ambition and the second, if they have that talent, they will soon abandon the tribal group once a good offer for serious employment comes along or they find that they are not getting out of the group artistically what they put into it time-wise.

And while he fervently wished for more tribal thinking, he was at the same time concerned because people "at their core, are selfish and self-involved."

Mike, in my comments box, agreed with Don: "it's a attractive concept, but I don't really see it surviving collision with reality. The issues of talent versus loyal work always raise their head in any collective, along with a host of other issues. Every system has issues, but the idea that the answer is simply "tribes" seems like academic hogwash."

Nick at Rat Sass followed this line of thought himself, writing:
American theatre, more than theatre in other countries, swims in the shared water of the big pool of dominant culture. So the theatre tribe may resemble an Entourage or Posse as much as they do a religious parish or political sect. I doubt Don, Ian, or Slay would turn down fame if Celebrity Culture offered it to them. Few American theatre groups I know are shunning “stardom” or “moving up” to a more “prestigious” venue.

All of this thoughtful commentary has led me to further thinking. What has me particularly intrigued is that almost everyone who has posted on this topic has simultaneously expressed a longing that it should work, combined with a sense that it is unlikely if not impossible because the theatrical American Dream of fame and fortune will sooner or later corrupt the idealism.

Which leads me to wonder whether this model would operate better in a place where the likelihood of fame is less in the forefront of artists' imaginations. Perhaps NYC and Chicago, where there is a hierarchy of theatres and where a strong personal review can lead to the possibility of individual fame, holds too many temptations. In fact, perhaps these environmental facts actually attract the type of people who would fit into such a system, and thus NOT fit into a tribe. I'm not saying that NYC and Chicago theatre people are more "selfish and self-involved" than others, but rather that the unspoken hope that, like Cinderella, you might be plucked from obscurity and courted by the Prince would be less prevalent in a city a bit further from the spotlight where fairy godmothers rarely go. Perhaps the every-man-for-himself, dog-eat-dog mentality is encouraged in big cities that receive mass media attention, and the values of cooperation and ensemble would best be developed in a different atmosphere.

And if the thought of doing theatre outside of the megalopolis makes you queasy, makes you think it is a symbol of "giving up" or not being "good enough," then you are probably not a good candidate for a tribe. Tribes are about the work, not about the individual. It's about being happy having an opportunity to do work that is fulfilling, and regarding that fulfillment as an end in itself. It isn't about money (although tribes should provide enough to get by), and it isn't about fame. It is about theatre, and contribution to the life of a community.


Tom Loughlin said...

Hi Walt,

I am beginning to catch up on about six months of blog reading, trying to get back in the swing of writing. Your posts on tribalism are interesting.

My comment is as follows: Can the concept of tribalism really be consciously created? Or is it possible that some of the theatres in the past which exhibited the traits of tribalism are really serendipitous events, a confluence of the right people in the right place and time creating a singular historic event? I've always thought that was true of the Moscow Art Theatre and the Group Theatre, for example, or the early days of Steppenwolf.

If you're looking for examples of where tribalism might work in places where the lure of fame is not so great, I offer the example of Milwaukee/Madison and the Milwaukee Rep, where many of the actors have been working there for going on 15 years. In Buffalo, there is also a deep sense of tribalism, but as this community is scattered across several theatre, it works in some ways, and in other ways it makes the local theatre community dysfunctional. -twl

Tony said...

I started to leave a comment, but it was rather long, so I posted it.