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.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Thousand Kites Blog

Some amazing things have been happening with this production of Thousand Kites, Donna Porterfield's and Appalshop's wonderful play about the effects of the prison system on inmates, guards, their families, and communities. I just sent out the following email to the university campus, and I'd like to extend to my readers as well the invitation to follow the rehearsal process through opening night.

On November 14th, the Drama Department will open the world premiere production of "Thousand Kites," a drama about the effects of prison on inmates, guards, their families, and the community (a "kite," in prison lingo, is a letter or message). The multi-disciplinary arts and education center Appalshop, who created the play to accompany their award-winning documentary "Up the Ridge" about the Wallens Ridge supermax prison just outside of their Whitesburg KY community in Big Stone Gap Va, have been filming rehearsals to make a documentary about our production, which will be used to help others who might produce the play. This has been a very exciting experience for those involved. Playwright Donna Porterfield and Nick Szuberla and Amelia Kirby (the co-producers of "Up the Ridge") will be here for Opening Night with an experienced film crew to record the show and the discussion that is part of it. In addition, Reuters journalist Alan Elsner, author of the book "Gates of Injustice: The Crisis in America's Prisons," which was the basis for two reading circles sponsored by the Center for Teaching and Learning, will also be on campus November 14th and 15th and will attend opening night. So "Thousand Kites" is starting to become An Event!
As part of the rehearsal process, the students and I will be maintaining an on-going journal about the rehearsals, the issues, and what we are learning and feeling. There are several posts already. You can see what we are up to at http://uncathousandkites.blogspot.com. In addition, we have been collecting information that is pertinent to the play, as well as posted several short videos about the project, at http://thousandkites.pbwiki.com, where you can find out information about the issues by clicking on "Resources." There is also a link to the journal there.

We hope that you will find all this interesting, and that you'll follow us during the two-and-a-half weeks leading up to our opening performance. Tickets are already available electronically on our website at http://unca.edu/drama and clicking on "TheatreUNCA" or "Box Office."

Last night, the Appalshop film crew wanted to film about 15 minutes of the students sitting in a circle discussing what they have learned during the first two weeks of rehearsal. An hour later, they were still filming, because the students were totally engaged in an insightful, articulate, and open-minded conversation about all aspects of the criminal justice system. In the course of the discussion, references were made to many other classes students were taking where they had learned things that had helped them to form their own ideas and opinions. It was the most extraordinary hour of rehearsals I have ever experienced, and it made me proud in our UNCA community.

Anyway, I hope you'll take a peek at our websites, and that we'll see you at the performances. I'll be sending out other announcements when the box office fully opens a week before opening.


Sunday, October 21, 2007

Welcome, Asheville Readers

Today, the Asheville Citizen-Times posted a guest commentary I wrote concerning a proposed performing arts center being planned for downtown. I was opposed. Not because I don't think we need venues for the performing arts in Asheville -- we do. What I oppose is the creation of yet another generic arts palace "anchored" (in the sense of sunk) by a 2400-seat auditorium that will house the symphony, but for most of the year will be filled with second- and third-tier touring shows from New York. Here is the text of my letter:
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I have been involved in the arts for more than 40 years. I care deeply about the arts, and think they are crucial to creating a vibrant community.

So I find it painful to find myself in opposition to the proposal for the new $80 million performing arts center (PAC) proposed for downtown Asheville. But I am, and here is why.

Unlike other creatively vibrant local and regional arts organizations like, for instance, Handmade in America, the Southern Highlands Craft Guild and venues like Woolworth Walk, the proposed PAC is not focused on supporting local artists, but relies on touring shows to fill the 2,400-seat auditorium at its center.

Such a monstrosity is suitable primarily for one local arts organization: the Asheville Symphony Orchestra, a group that performs nine concerts a year and “employs” 80-100 musicians and performs music aimed at the gated communities of Asheville.

And the other 350 nights? Cats and Rent.

Grow your own artists

The HUB Project calls for Asheville to be an arts destination.

To do so, it needs to focus first and foremost on its local and regional artists by serving as an “incubator for the arts,” as the HUB puts it.

This implies growing your own artists, not importing them. Visual arts organizations seem to get this, but the performing arts are still stuck in a mindset that looks toward New York City as the height of artistic value.

Yes, North Carolina Stage Company will have a space in the PAC, and that is as it should be — it is an Asheville gem.

But what about other arts organizations? Will NCStage have to share its space with them?

Or will it be relegated to the rehearsal studio, which will also be programmed by the Asheville Symphony? Where do smaller organizations perform?

Is the expectation that all the performing artists in Asheville will be competing for those two spaces while the massive auditorium sits empty?

A better approach

What we need is a PAC that follows the goals of the Asheville HUB Project, fits into the culture and architecture of downtown and is focused on growing and spotlighting local artists that define Asheville as a unique place.

We need a center that includes a wide variety of smaller, less luxurious venues that might include: a small concert hall for quartets and trios; a café for bluegrass, jazz and folk musicians where parents can bring their children to listen to music in a smoke-free, alcohol-free environment; a 300-seat theater for North Carolina Stage Company; a smaller black box for more intimate performances and readings; a dance space specially designed to accommodate the needs of that art form; and an open market where visitors could have refreshments and buy the goods of local artists.

We must provide venues for a diversity of performance styles and traditions including African-American, Hispanic, Celtic, traditional mountain, contemporary avant-garde and other performances.

An artistic bazaar

What we don’t need is an artistic McMansion: cheaply opulent and far too large. What we need is an artistic bazaar.

Such a space doesn’t have to be built from the ground up, but rather could be retrofitted into existing buildings. Imagine the Grove Arcade had it been devoted to performance spaces.

I’m not an architect, so I can’t say whether that would be cheaper, but I do know that a massive new building built in the midst of downtown, complete with parking garage and automobile accessibility, will destroy much of what makes downtown interesting and unique.

If you thought the sign in front of Pack Place was a mistake, wait until you see this building.

Our own unique flavor

If Asheville wants to continue to be recognized nationwide as a unique and attractive place to live and visit, we need to design an arts facility that reflect who we are and what makes us different.

We don’t need a generic performing arts mall complete with cut-rate versions of “The Producers,” but rather a center that is designed to highlight our unique identity and support the artists who make their lives here.

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The group that is raising money for this PAC, the Asheville Area Center for the Performing Arts, did a presentation recently that I attended. They showed a video with images of other PAC's they had visited that was supposed to leave us slack-jawed with awe -- God-awful arts McMansions that were about as unique and individual as a McDonalds. These are pseudo-palaces for the arts designed to accommodate the wealthy, intimidate the rest, and signal our cultural "superiority" by bringing in a mix of has-been pop artists and cut-back versions of New York entertainment. Meanwhile, our own performing artists -- actors, dancers, musicians -- are desperate for places where they can rehearse and perform.

Asheville gets a lot of retirees who come here from New York, and they bring their belief in NYC as the gold standard of the performing arts with them. They join boards and promote that provincialism while scorning the vibrant artists who dare to make their home in Western North Carolina. Meanwhile, our own artists struggle.

We are outsourcing our artistic life, and it is time for it to stop. There is no reason that local taxes should be used to import culture. If housing touring shows was the way to become an arts destination, Greenville-Spartanburg would be the NYC of the southeast. People come to a town because they can get something there that they can't get elsewhere. Nobody visits a town in order to hit the local multiplex, which is what this PAC resembles. If people want to see a Broadway musical, there are cheap flights from Asheville airport to see the real thing. If they want to come to, or live in, Asheville, they should see the real Asheville thing.

What happens when we rely on touring productions? We get insults like the touring production of The Great American Trailer Park Musical, which is coming to town in mid-March at another touring venue, the Diana Wortham Theatre. Another NYC insult to the south, and another example of how we allow the wealthy and educated to ridicule and insult the poor and uneducated. And then we wonder why our public policies seem to focus on helping the wealthy and middle-class, and why programs like SCHIP are able to be vetoed without protest. The description of this abomination is:

Direct from Off Broadway [because that means it must be good, natch] comes the first national tour of The Great American Trailer Park Musical. There's a new tenant in town, and she's wreaking havoc all over Florida's most exclusive trailer park. When Pippi the stripper [because, you know, what other kind of woman lives in a trailer partk, right?] comes between the Dr. Phil-loving Jeannie and her tollbooth collector husband, the storms begin to brew - and we ain't talkin' about any old Florida hurricane [no sirree bob].

From spray cheese [because them there trailer park folks all eat spray cheese, yuh know] to Dr. Phil, road kill [har har -- probably cooking up that there road kill, right?], hysterical pregnancy, agoraphobia, and more, colorful characters and lasting friendships are at the heart of this hilarious side-splitting new musical. An infectious score, cheeky script, incredible set, and some of the most roof-raising, girl-group singing since the Pointer Sisters all add up to a fabulous and fun night out.

Kill me. This particular producer -- Off Broadway Booking -- seems to specialize in insulting different groups, with shows like Beehive, Dixie's Tupperware Party, and The Mo' Tenors. (And for those of you who, a few months ago, asked for examples of plays that insult the south and the poor -- spend some time at that website.)

This is the kind of "culture" we get from road tours. Is this what is going to make Asheville an arts destination? Is this so superior to what our own artists produce? And let's be clear: at $23 - $35 a ticket, this is a middle-class entertainment whose main appeal will be to let the elite snicker at the poor.

The proposed PAC is for the elites, not for the majority of Asheville citizens. As Dudley Cocke wrote in "Arts in a Democracy," the audience that will attend these shows will look like no community in America other than a gated one. In this case, a gated community of NY retirees. And in the meantime, it will reinforce the misbegotten notion that anything of value in the performing arts comes from NYC.

We need a PAC that grows the Western North Carolina arts community. We don't need to outsource our cultural life.