Saturday, October 27, 2007

On Isaac's Discussion of "Apathy"

Isaac over at Parabasis has written a few posts that are resonating with me personally right now. It began with "A Conversation We Should Get In On," and was followed up with "More On Apathy and Our Generation of Theatremakers." It should be clear by now that I am not a member of Isaac's, or most of the blogosphere's, generation. I am 49 years old in an established career with security and job satisfaction. However, I confront in my students every day the same sense of frustration and fear that Isaac is talking about. And perhaps archetypally, as I near my 50th birthday, I am questioning myself and how I approach my own ideas.

In response to Isaac's first post, I wrote:

Are you asking why theatre people don't "do something" about the current theatrical malaise? If that's the question (is it?), I guess I'd say that doing something requires a level of courage that is difficult for most people to consider. It means confronting the powers that be, rejecting the status quo and the chance of success that goes with it, and creating a new game with rules and purpose that appeal to you. It means determining what matters to you, and then making the commitment to following those things through. There is a wonderful book I've read of late called "The Answer to How Is Yes" that empowers you to undertake change by questioning yourself about what commitments you need to make, how you contribute to the problem, and what refusals you have postponed (among other things). Me? I'd start with the latter -- what refusals have you postponed? And go from there. I think you have to look inside first, rather than blaming "them." Anyway, get the book. It might start you moving forward.

Joshua James, perhaps not unreasonably given my past, felt that my comments were "confrontational." I replied:

I didn't mean them confrontationally. I am speaking from my own experience. It is very, very hard to go outside the established way of doing things. It is scary, and often isolates you. It requires a level of confidence that far exceeds the norm. Hell, it's hard enough just living within the norm! As you have oft noted, Joshua, I am a tenured professor. If, however, I find myself out of step with my departmental colleagues -- and I do -- and if I have an idea for a different way of approaching theatre education and/or the creation of theatre -- and I do -- doing something about it might require my giving up the security of my teaching position to either go somewhere else or leave academia entirely... I doubt whether I would have the courage to take those steps. To do so would require a level of courage far above the norm. I used to think I had that courage -- now, I don't know. The velvet cage. For professional artists who have far less security than I have, the dangers are even greater. When a part of your success depends not only on your talent, but on your positive acquaintances, it would be difficult, it would seem to me, to risk taking an oppositional stance against anybody or any institution because at some point they may have the power to hire. Better to "play well with others." I think Laura Axelrod, for instance, answered the question "what refusal have you postponed" not long ago -- she said no to blogging about theatre and writing plays. She faced her feelings, and instead of blaming others and asking them to change, she took responsibility for her own actions and made a choice. In essence, she removed herself from a community where she had some level of respect and admiration. On the other hand, I spend and inordinate amount of my personal energy bitching about my colleagues and the "way we do things" instead of doing something to change it within my own life. I have to take responsibility for my own actions instead of expecting my colleagues to change to the way I want them to be. Which doesn't mean shrugging, accepting the way things are, and learning to live with it. It means figuring out what matters to me and acting on that. I'm not trying to accuse anybody of cowardice. Not in the least.

Joshua pointed out that it takes great courage to pursue a dream, and he knows many people who have that courage. So true! I replied:

Yes, Josh, I know those people too. And I admire them a great deal. And it does take great courage to pursue your dreams -- as someone who teaches courses about the hero's journey, I know that anything that is worth pursuing is filled with danger. I would never downplay the kind of courage it takes to doggedly pursue a dream. If I learned anything from "How to Change the World" (another great book, this one about social entrepreneurship, that I recommend to anyone looking for inspiration) is that sheer determination is the first thing necessary to accomplish anything. But one of the things the book I recommended, "The Answer to How is Yes," recommends is to go beyond blaming Them or need Them to change before you can do anything. In fact, expect that they WON'T change, and then figure out how to move forward. Some may look for ways to work within the system (that's what I realize I am trying to do), others try to create a new way outside the system (that's what I would LIKE to do).

I have spent a lot of energy trying to persuade people to change their values. Whether on my blog, or in my department, I have committed myself to trying to get people to change their attitudes, to share my values. And I have started to believe that this is a waste of time. That I should be focused on creating a model, putting my ideas into action, and then embrace anyone who finds themselves inspired by that model to join me. The fact is that my departmental colleagues are not going to change. If I wait for them to do so before I follow my own beliefs and ideas, I will be stuck and frustrated until I retire. So I have to ask myself: how do I do what I want to do within this structure? Do I have to follow my heart IN ADDITION to doing what I have to do for the department? That will require a commitment of time and energy above what already seems, at times, overwhelming -- am I willing to do that? If so, is there anything I could say no to that would help me regain time and energy for what matters most to me? And what am I doing that is making the problem worse?

I'm finding this focus on me rather than others as being personally empowering. I don't have to change the world FIRST, I can change it by following my own vision. Which brings me back to Buckminster Fuller -- a quotation I have used before, but which didn't seem as powerful as it does now: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

In some ways, I wonder whether my rather sparse posting has something to do with this new orientation. Perhaps my desire to change the ideas of others, to persuade people to share my viewpoint, has lost some of its steam. I find myself spending my time trying to focus on what I can DO in my situation -- what I can do alone, accompanied by people who already share my orinetation or are at least open to exploring it with me, and enriching my ideas with their own. Over the past 2-1/2 years of writing this blog, I can't really say I have changed many minds. There may be people who read the blog and pass the ideas around to others without my knowledge, and that hope keeps me going. But if I once was hoping that Isaac, Joshua, Don, Matt, James, Paul, George, Laura, and the rest would suddenly be united in a chorus of huzzas for something I've written, I have now come to recognize that such a hope is unrealistic. If I used this failure to totally persuade the blogosphere as a reason to throw up my hands and give up, that would be very sad for me. If the fact that my departmental colleagues never share or even understand my theatre orientation stopped me from doing the types of plays I believe in, or teaching classes the way I see them, that would also be depressing for me personally.

I don't know that any of these musings have anything to do with Isaac's questions -- I suspect it is a middle-aged riff on a young person's struggle. But I would offer that waiting for The System to change, and the people within that system, is a red herring. There will always be a System, and most of the time it won't support what you believe in. Ignore the system; focus on yourself. Determine what you believe in, and then follow that star. Those are my thoughts today.

1 comment:

Philucifer [aka Charlie Willis] said...

Thanks for this, Scott.

It's always been my belief that changing minds is a quest that's doomed to fail. Those who ARE swayed can be swayed the other direction just as easily and quickly, and it's only a matter of time until that happens.

Those who AREN'T swayed will most likely resent your attempt, no matter how altruistic your motives may be. It implies that they are somehow inferior to you. There can only be true communication between equals.

But enlarging the conversation, sharing your personal history, and brainstorming options that others may not have considered -- or that YOU might not have considered previously -- is a worthwhile endeavor and assumes a partnership. And, of course, real change takes time.

I see a lot of the above in your writing, and it's what I respond to most. "Here's my struggle. Here are my thoughts, my experiences. Tell me about your struggle. Let's compare notes and see if we can learn from one another."

In that vein, let me share this: in reading this post, I was struck by this line in the final paragraph -- "Ignore the system; focus on yourself." It was gnawing at me for some reason, and then I realized it was because what I WANTED it to say was: "Ignore the system; focus on YOUR WORK."

One of the best bits of advice I've ever gotten in this crazy theatrical world was stated to me in college like this: "ALWAYS take your work seriously; but never, ever take yourself seriously." It's an axiom I've been living by (quite successfully) for years.

It gives me permission to make an ass out of myself (or at least risk making an ass out of myself) on a regular basis without worrying about how others see me. It allows me to resist dwelling on my personal weaknesses and put all of that focus and energy on the script, the production, developing the specific process for a production, and the experience of creation.

And it's probably why I don't feel like I'm in the grip of that malaise. (Also, why *I* haven't posting much lately.)