Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Appalshop and the TVA Sludge Spill

From Mark W. Kidd at Appalshop:

Subject: Harriman, TN sludge spill

A Tennessee Valley Authority sludge holding pond in Harriman, Tennessee failed on December 22, flooding hundreds of acres with the liquid form of fly ash, a byproduct of burning coal. Fly ash contains heavy metals and other toxins, and residents of Harriman and downstream communities are now faced with the physical devastation of their land and water, as well as the fear that their air and water has been contaminated.

Appalshop has issued a response to the incident here and for the first time in our history, we will be streaming two films relevant to this crisis: Sludge and The Buffalo Creek Flood: An Act of Man, which you can find at that link.

This spill is the latest chapter in a story that Appalshop has been sharing for 40 years as we have witnessed our region's complex and changing relationship with coal - a focal point for
understanding Appalachia's history and thinking about its future. Since our founding in 1969, Appalshop's mission has been to tell stories that aren't told by cultural industries and to support
communities' efforts to achieve justice and equity. This is an important moment for our region and our nation to share these stories, and to help ensure that the national dialog around
Appalachia's environment and economy represents the social, cultural, and economic diversity of the Appalachian region.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Sound familiar?

From Dudley Cocke's essay "Art in a Democracy," published in 2002. Cocke is the Artistic Director of nationally-known community--based Roadside Theatre in Whitesburg KY:

"Beginning with the Reagan administration through the Clinton presidency, federal leadership tolerated relentless attacks on the leading agencies supporting cultural pluralism in the not-for-profit sector — beginning with their own National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. (With some irony, we now recall that those attacks were led by our own homegrown religious fundamentalists.) One effect of the attacks has been to elevate the U.S. commercial arts at the expense of the not-for-profit arts.

The distinction between the two sectors is significant because, devoid of its not-for-profit competition, the impact of U.S. commercial culture in this moment of globalization has become overwhelming. Imagine how the U.S. looks to hundreds of millions of people around the world whose only sources of information about us are television, Hollywood movies and pop music. Equally troubling, at home this commercial preference has corrupted our own not-for-profit sector’s core values.

For example, the standard production model in the not-for-profit theater is now the assembly line: the various "parts" (mostly people in the case of the performing arts) are brought from various locales to a central location (the theater) where they are assembled in a three- or four-week period into a final product. The play’s director interprets the production blueprint; the resident artistic director provides quality control. The product is then sold to arts consumers until market demand flags, at which time the production disassembles itself in a process akin to implosion. No wonder the not-for-profit theater refers to itself in aggregate as the theater industry, and no wonder that the commercial and not-for-profit resident theater audiences are essentially the same when measured by income: overwhelmingly the wealthiest 15 percent of the people (according to the League of American Theaters and Producers). As a rule, both the commercial and the not-for-profit arts sectors have come to value efficiency over participation, mobility over attachment to place, and short-term gain over sustainability."

Yes, it does sound an awful lot like what Mike Daisey has been saying. Of course, Cocke said it in Kentucky and Daisey said it in New York, so Cocke was ignored and Daisey was hailed as a provocateur.

And then there is this:

"The nation’s diversity is its renewable source of energy, lighting the beacon of freedom that the rest of the world strains to see. It is now clearly in our national interest for the Bush administration to end cultural isolationism and replace it with a policy that secures the role of the not-for-profit arts in international exchange — and links that exchange to a domestic arts policy that values our own national diversity. In this way, we can create the framework for the arts at home and abroad to develop common goals."

Why yes, that does sound an awful lot like part of the Obama arts policy!

Cocke was way ahead of his time. And/or the theatre was way behind its time.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Kudos to Tony Adams

There is a fascinating discussion of "Content" going on over at Tony's blog. I would venture to say it is the theatrosphere at its finest, a real revelation of what dialogue (dare I say civil discourse?) could be here in blogworld.

Go and read and contribute. Then after you do, come back here.

------------------

You're back? Good. So here's my question: why is that conversation so good, and how do we make it happen
more often?
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On Complexity and Civil Discourse

Over at Flyover, there is a great article from the Charleston City Paper entitled "The Partisan Imagination: Does Being an Artist Make You a Liberal?" What I appreciate most about the article, in addition to its quoting from Martha Nussbaums' inspiring book Cultivating Humanity, is that it at least somewhat respects the complexity of the question. It doesn't answer yes or no, either-or, but rather maybe-and. he author weighs different viewpoints, and gives credence to those ideas that resist the desire to simplify the issue to melodramatic poles. The last line points to another facet of the subject, another viewpoint yet to be considered.  Would there were more such thoughtful articles in newspapers or here in the theatrosphere.

Much of my dissertation involved studying the writings of Lionel Trilling, an important literary critic who wrote for The Partisan Review from the 1930s through the 1960s. It is from him that I learned to appreciate complexity. Complexity does not mean obscurity, but rather an appreciation of the fact that most questions worth discussing are multi-faceted.

Our society has become addicted to simple-minded melodrama. From our entertainment to our political discourse, we regularly choose the extreme over the measured, the fight over the discussion, the war over diplomacy. Throughout the presidential campaign, the media continually cried out that it was necessary for Obama to take a few swings at McCain, to deliver a "knockout punch," to get more aggressive. To his credit, Obama resisted those calls, because his vision for America is based not only on bi-partisanship, but on a recognition that issues are complex, and demand a thoughtful, measured process and response. Even now, as Obama prepares his transition to the Presidency, websites like Daily Kos (which I read compulsively throughout the campaign) is claiming that it wasn't Obama's stated values that won the campaign, but rather the Kossacks who went after McCain and Palin whenever they threw garbage his way. Perhaps they are right. Perhaps it is as Wallace Shawn said in Aunt Dan and Lemon, that our kindness and empathy relies on someone like Henry Kissinger to do the dirty work for us.

But now that the challenger has been vanquished, it is time to put aside our weapons and help Obama in his attempt to create a different society, one that focuses on points of commonality not points of conflict, one that focuses on civil dialogue not polarized shouting matches, one that recognizes complexity rather than pretends to a simplicity that doesn't exist. This requires restraint. It requires us to give up the buzz afforded by killing dragons.  For there are very few dragons, but there are many, many complex problems that require the insights and considerations of multiple perspectives.

I am a lifelong Democrat, and during my 32 years of voting I have seen my candidates win and I've seen them lose. But never have I felt such a sense of personal hope as when Obama won. And that hope is based not just in a changing of the guard, an unseating of the Republican leadership that has taken us down so many despicable pathways -- I would not have felt the same way had Hilary Clinton been elected instead of Obama, although I would have felt some measure of relief nonetheless. Rather, the intensity of my hope, which seems to be shared by so many people worldwide, is based on something in Obama's character, something is his way of being, something in his grace, his civility, his discipline, his passionate open-mindedness. The President can set a tone, can call on our better angels, can remind us of what we are in our best moments rather than our worst. And he does that not only by what he does, but just as importantly by how he does it.

As a society, we are hooked on the political crack that is partisan conflict.  It is my fervent hope that Obama can take us through rehab, break our adrenaline addiction, and restore us to calm, thoughtful, civil thinking and discourse.
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Monday, November 10, 2008

Poor Player on Intolerant Liberalism

Tom Loughlin posts a warning for all of us who might be inclined to turn Barack Obama's much-appreciated election into a cudgel with which to beat (or drum out) alternative viewpoints. Tom describes the arrival on his campus of a preacher who preached conservative, anti-gay sermon, and how many of his students and faculty felt it was acceptable to take action to drown out his speech. Like Tom, I have had such preachers on my campus as well, and like Tom I have defended the right to voice ideas that I find despicable and wrong-headed. What goes around comes around, and if we feel the right to silence others with whom we disagree, we should not be surprised to find ourselves silenced when the ideological worm turns.

Isaac gets upset at Tom's post, because Tom presents no evidence that this is more than an isolated incident. I don't think that was the point of Tom's post.  The point was to sound a warning. As someone who has spent the past twenty years on college campuses, I have seen the intolerance of the left firsthand, and it is very unsettling. Tom rightly points out that what made Obama such an inspiring candidate was his insistence that his campaign maintain at all times a civil demeanor. His election night speech, as Tom also points out, was focused on the same theme of one America working together.

Polarization works both ways, and our love of melodramatic good-vs-evil structure is something from which we need to free ourselves. Democracy thrives when there is a rich dialogue represented by many viewpoints. The work of Sojourn Theatre or Cornerstone Theatre, for instance, are exemplary in that they make explicit this commitment to a multiplicity of voices. The description of the conflicts and negotiations involved in Cornerstone's massive Faith-Based Theater Cycle, brilliantly described by Mark Valdez in the Americans for the Arts publication Dialogue in Artistic Practice, shows how the willingness to inclusively integrate multiple viewpoints leads to incredibly rich theatre. Bill Rauch, former artistic director of Cornerstone, said in an interview: "The company's aesthetic is to include the community's dialogue with itself in the script, which calls for opposing voices and layers of meaning and a vital richness. Multiplicity of viewpoints: It's essential to our mission….I think a lot of people stop at the "multiplicity of voices" thing, and interpret it as "Can't we all get along?" – a kind of superficial multiculturalism. But including the voice of the oppressor along with the voice of the oppressed is a very strong political stance." Rob Kendt, in an article on Cornerstone, writes about the discomfort that many feel in actually listening to ideas with which they disagree, while at the same time claiming tolerance as a creed: ”that’s how tolerance works in many circles of public life: Don’t ask, don’t tell. We can all just get along if we stick to sports and the weather – or, in the theatre, to the script and the lighting plot.”

Democracy demands diversity, and that means accepting that there are people in the world whose opinions are objectionable. But a society unable to openly and respectfully engage all viewpoints, a society that swings wildly from pole to pole as ideological winds shift, is a society that has lost its mind, its heart, and its sense of community. I am old enough to remember when the Nazis wanted to march in Skokie Illinois. As the cover of the book When the Nazis Came to Skokie describes: "
In the Chicago suburb of Skokie, one out of every six Jewish citizens in the late 1970s was a survivor--or was directly related to a survivor--of the Holocaust. These victims of terror had resettled in America expecting to lead peaceful lives free from persecution. But their safe haven was shattered when a neo-Nazi group announced its intention to parade there in 1977....The debate was clear-cut: American Nazis claimed the right of free speech while their Jewish "targets" claimed the right to live without intimidation. The town, arguing that the march would assault the sensibilities of its citizens and spark violence, managed to win a court injunction against the marchers. In response, the American Civil Liberties Union took the case and successfully defended the Nazis' right to free speech." The book description concludes: "Forcefully argued, Strum's book shows that freedom of speech must be defended even when the beneficiaries of that defense are far from admirable individuals. It raises both constitutional and moral issues critical to our understanding of free speech and carries important lessons for current controversies over hate speech on college campuses, inviting readers to think more carefully about what the First Amendment really means."

We need to reclaim the basic understanding of democracy's foundational ideas, especially the idea of civic discourse and the importance of dialogue. If anyone should understand that necessity, it should be theatre people, whose very art form lives and dies on dialogic conflict between opposing viewpoints, from which comes a rich and complex synthesis.

Thanks, Tom, for the warning.
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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Meme: Seven Strange Things About Me

Don tagged me with a meme in which I am supposed to post seven strange things about me. OK, here goes:

1. I married the first girl I kissed. (Note to others: really bad idea.)
2. I had to abandon my first dissertation topic after spending three years researching it because it was turning into a life's work instead of an academic hoop. I still have all the index cards -- hundreds of them. I look at them whenever I want my blood pressure to rise.
3. I spent the summer after my eighth grade year watching 8mm tapes of Charlie Chaplin in order to figure out how comedy worked. I have relied on the knowledge ever since.
4. One summer, I had every guy in my neighborhood playing chess and writing down the moves on paper. Seriously.
5. People scare me.
6. Ever since my mother died, I cry anytime someone in a movie says good-bye.
7. My college roommate, who is also from my hometown of Racine Wisconsin, is Michael Phillips, the Chicago Trib film critic.
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Waiting for Our Obama

Last night, I watched Barack Obama become the leader of our country, and I watched as he inspired thousands in Grant Park, and I looked at the tears in my wife's and my eyes that found echo in those of Jesse Jackson, Oprah Winfrey, and many anonymous viewers in Chicago. When I woke up this morning, I felt a renewed sense of hope, and when I encountered my often-cynical academic colleagues they said "It is a great day to be an American." This wasn't just change we can believe in, it was belief that can change us.

And I asked myself, "Why?" What actual decisions made by a President have an immediate impact on my day-to-day life? In fact, my personal life is more likely to be affected by local politicians making zoning law decisions or decisions about water agreements than anything that happens on the national level. And yet, as I listened to Obama's words of hope for the future and watched his graceful way of being present, I knew that he is the one who will set the bar for America. He is the one who will appeal to our higher angels, who will inspire us to new creativity, who will imbue us with a belief that change is possible and that the world can be saved. He will be an image, an archetype, a single clear note that creates sympathetic vibrations in the souls of citizens.

And I found myself longing for a leader for the theatre. Someone who could do the same thing for a group of theatre artists scattered around the country who might find inspiration, courage, focus, and determination from a figure who could paint a picture of our higher purpose that would lead us creatively forward. The President isn't the only voice heard in America -- our system of checks and balances and our the loyal opposition assures that wisdom will arise through multiple perspectives, a wisdom that is enriched by the diversity of viewpoints. But the President sets an agenda and chooses the key in which many will sing. And I wonder who provides that vision for theatre artists. Who do we look to to sound a call, to set the key, to point the direction? Perhaps the head of TCG, but I am sorry to say that TCG is not filling a leadership role, but rather sees itself as one of the cheerleaders.

I think we in the arts need our own Barack Obama. Not a dictator who squashes creative diversity, but someone with need a powerful vision that we can line ourselves up in relation to, a person whose ideas we can enrich with our own perspectives, a person with a resonant voice that we can harmonize with. Someone who can say "Yes we can" in a way that makes us think maybe we could.

And so I ask you: when you think about leaders in the theatre, who might be such a person? Who might be our Obama?
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Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Condensed Authenticity

A few minutes ago, I sent the following email to the students in one of my classes -- a class that is investigating the work of Patrick Overton (Rebuilding The Front Porch of America), David Diamond (Theatre for Living), Jill Dolan (Utopia in Performance), Cornerstone Theatre, Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, def Poetry Jam, Anna Deavere Smith, The Laramie Project, and many others. I wrote:

"This blog post by Patti Digh, author of the marvelous "Life Is a Verb" and Asheville resident, seemed to apply to what we are studying -- to the sentence "everyone is an artist" and the importance of telling one's stories, whether in poems or story circles or plays or performances. We are so very certain that we know what qualifies as "drama," what is "worth telling." But the woman in the grocery store line holding on for dear life to a recipe contains so much truth and emotion and insight that it almost dwarfs our usual dramatic fare. Why don't we tell these stories? Why don't we feel our way into the reality through the small moments that carry so much truth? Isn't authenticity what we dream of?"

There are times when I feel that I, as a theatre historian, a theorist, a humanist, a director, a teacher, have lost the thread of what is most important, what stories we really need to bring us together as human beings. My students were so inspired by watching def Poetry Jam, because they could hear the passion of real experience shaped into art, the power of condensed authenticity. So often what is lost in the discussion of business models, marketing, fundraising, job searching, and the day-to-day trials of life in the arts is that its power rests not in its flash, in its slickness, in its structure, but in the power that comes when human beings seek to share a real emotion or insight in a way that is deeply felt and powerfully authentic. If audiences could encounter that more often on our stages, I don't think we'd have to worry about what makes theatre special -- the audience would know that the theatre was where truth was told, where hearts came together, where connections were real, where life was revealed.
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Friday, October 24, 2008

Burnt

Probably all done. It's coming up on a month since I posted anything, and I'm not feeling much motivation to break the drought.
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Thursday, October 02, 2008

Link: Alison Croggon on Arts Advocacy

Give it a read.
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Seth Godin's New Book

Imagine my surprise to find that bestselling business writer Seth Godin's new book is called Tribes: We Need You to lead Us. The Amazon description reads:

"If you're looking at this page this far ahead of publication, you're probably a member of Seth Godin's tribe. And if so, you already know what this book is about. You know about waiting in line at an Apple store, or the look on a fellow Deadhead's face. You know about the way it feels to go back to the church where you grew up. You know about the real power of a brand. According to Godin, Tribes are groups of people aligned around an idea, connected to a leader and to each other. Tribes make our world work, and always have. The new opportunity is that it's easier than ever to find, organize, and lead a tribe. The Web has enabled an explosion of all kinds of tribes -- and created shortage of people to lead them. This is the growth industry of our time. Tribes (the book) will help you understand exactly what's at stake, and why YOU can and should lead a tribe of your own."

As Robin Williams says at the end of Good Will Hunting: "He stole my line." Time to finish my book on theatre tribes!
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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Teaching Alternatives

In my Theatre of the Oppressed class this  semester, we are reading Jill Dolan's Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theatre. Now at Princeton, Dr. Dolan (who headed the Theatre Department at City University of New York Graduate Center when I was completing my doctorate) wrote her book while at the University of Texas at Austin. I have previously linked to her fantastic blog post "Unhappy Thespians: A Manifesto on Training Theatre Students" on her Feminist Spectator blog. I could offer quoatation after quotation of stuff that makes me stand up and shout, but I will confine myself to a paragraph from Chapter 2.

"I teach in the largest theatre department in the country (we enroll 350 undergraduate and 100 graduate students, and employ nearly forty faculty), a program from which most students focused on acting will gravitate toward New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, since many see themselves as would-be stars. In my classes, I encourage them to imagine themselves as citizen-scholar-artists, as people who think about their art practices and their relationship to democracy, not just their fantasies of popularity. I try to encourage in them an attachment to theatre's possibilities as a place of inspiration and vision, as well as a vehicle for leisure and entertainment. I want them to see a connection between their work as actors, designers, or critics and the state of our world, so that they'll feel they have something ethical and social as well as aesthetic to contribute. I want them to be moved by what they do, and in that emotion, to feel the potential of their art to reach people deeply. I want to train my students to use performance as a tool for making better futures, to use performance to incite people to profound responses that shake their consciousness of themselves in the world." (36 - 37)

I would draw your attention to the sense of abundance in this paragraph: she doesn't call for her vision to replace the more mainstream vision, but to supplement it, to be considered as an alternative, an alternative that has just as much excitement and value as the one that has been single-mindedly promoted over the past century. It is a vision that is generous.

And yet I know from experience as a professor that this is a tough idea to sell to young people. The dominant paradigm, which is focused on individualism and materialism rather than communalism and idealism, is so strong that young people see the dismal employment figures of traditional theatre production as something that whets their appetite, as the pre-condition for an inspiring jump from obscurity to fame. Along the way, actors are encouraged to become blank slates for the marketplace to write on, to erase their own sense of ideals, indeed their own sense of identity, in order to be more "employable." And college professors, who themselves often had the same goals and same paradigm, discourage actors from thinking, from developing their own sense of purpose and aesthetics, their own sense of what they have to contribute.

This often surfaces in the enormous hostility I hear expressed towards academia, and rightfully so: it is the place where actors had their individuality erased, where they were beaten down and taunted and diminished as part of a "reshaping" process that is called "training." From the moment they arrive at their first departmental audition, they enter a miniature version of the marketplace where the professors cast not according to how they might best learn, but rather according to how they might best be used to create a product.

And so when they arrive in a class like Dolan's, or in my own, they revolt against the attempt to encourage them to think, to develop their own ideas, their own beliefs, and develop them as part of a rich conversation that has been ongoing for 2500 years -- because they know that it is a lie; that once they leave that particular classroom, they will once again be forced to erase themselves. Why go through the pain of developing as a unique individual when one must rejoin the masses again in order to survive, to be cast? I have sympathy for them, because they have been told that there are no alternatives, and those who have revolted against those limited opportunities by college have self-selected themselves into other departments, other field of endeavor.

As I mentioned above, the internationally-recognized and respected Jill Dolan has recently left UT Austin for Princeton and the Lewis Center for the Arts. A search of the theatre program reveals this description:

"Believing that the best training for a career in the theater is a broad-based liberal arts education, Princeton does not have a concentration in Theater. Instead, we offer a certificate in Theater and encourage students, should they have the inclination, to make connections in their artistic work between their fields of concentration and their love of the theater. The program offers the kinds of courses and co-curricular activities that will allow the student, upon graduation, to move into the best graduate conservatories to pursue advanced training in playwriting, acting, directing, design, stage management, and dramaturgy. But most students who take courses in the program do not elect to enter the certificate program; they simply enroll in the courses that interest them. Students with a particular interest in and commitment to the arts, however, may want to obtain the program certificate."

This represents quite a change from the UT Austin approach, perhaps one more suited to someone with Dolan's performance studies orientation. If I knew a young person who was interested in the theatre, and who I wanted to encourage as an artist, I would be more likely to point him or her to Princeton, where his or her individuality might be enriched rather than erased.
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Friday, September 26, 2008

David Hare on John Osborne

"It is, if you like, the final irony that John's governing love was for a country which is, to say the least, distrustful of those who seem to be both clever and passionate. There is in English public life an implicit assumption that the head and the heart are in some sort of opposition. If someone is clever, they get labelled cold. If they are emotional, they get labelled stupid. Nothing bewilders the English more than someone who exhibits great feeling and great intelligence. When, as in John's case, a person is abundant in both, the English response is to take in the washing and bolt the back door."

Have we come to the same place in America? Have we become so mired in irony that passion and intelligence is no longer an ideal?

To me, these questions are best answered on a generational basis. When I look at my students, the answer would be no, we have not come to such a place yet. While they sometimes adopt a certain ironic detachment as a comic pose, they have a strong commitment to passion and intelligence and when given the chance to express it (i.e., when given a chance to talk about things they care about rather than things teachers tell them they should care about), they sing their hope and compassions with a full voice.  However, earlier generations, who are currently in charge of most things, do seem to have been dipped in the acid of irony, and it shows up in our mass media, our news media, and many of our stories. It isn't downright cynicism, which at least would have the power of honesty, but is reflected more in the art of the scare quotes and the eye roll.

In class today, we talked about hope. Despite all evidence to the contrary in our current social landscape, most of my students have a great deal of hope -- both individual and collective. In fact, some of the hope is tied to the negative parts of the outlook: a belief that an economic and environmental collapse might lead us to a simpler, more humane lifestyle. There is a sense of wanting somehow to be allowed to care for each other, to live a life that is more than non-stop work, but that is based in a stronger humanism. I came away from the class feeling more buoyed and upbeat.

We also discussed this story from the book Creative Brooding, which might propose an image of the role of the arts in our contemporary environment:

One day Lauren Isley leaned against a stump at the edge of a glade and fell asleep. When I awoke, dimly aware of some commotion and outcry in the clearing, the light was slanting down through the pines in such a way that the glad was lit like some vast cathedral.  I could see the dust motes of wood pollen in the long shaft of light.  And there on the extended branch sat and enormous raven with a red and squirming nestling in his beak.  The sounds that awoke me was the outraged cries of the nestlings parents, who flew helplessly in circles about the clearing.  The sleek black monster was indifferent to them.  He gulped, whetted his beak on the dead branch a moment and sat still.  Up to that point, the little tragedy had dollowed the usual pattern.  But suddenly, out of all that area of woodland, a soft sound of complaint began to rise.  Into the glade fluttered small birds of half a dozen varieties, drawn by the anguished outcries of the tiny parents.  No one dared to attack the raven. But the cried there in some instinctive, common misery.  The bereaved and the unbereaved.  The glade filled with their soft rustling, and their cries.  They fluttered as though to point their wings at the murderer.  There was a dim, intangible ethic he had violated, that they knew.  He was a bird of death, and he, the murderer, the black bird at the heart of life, sat on there, glistening in the common light, formidable, unmoving, unperturbed, untouchable.  The sighing died.  It was then I saw the judgment.  It was the judgment of life against death.  I will never see it again so forcefully presented.  I will never hear it again in notes so tragically prolonged.  For in the midst of protest, they forgot the violence.  There, in that clearing, thew crystal note of a song sparrow lifted hesitantly in the hush, and finally, after painful fluttering, another took the song and then another.  The song passing from one bird to another, doubtfully at first, as though some evil thing were being slowly forgotten.  Till suddenly they took heart and sang from many throats joyously together as birds are known to sing.  They sang because life is sweet and sunlight beautiful.  They sang under the brooding shadow of the raven.  In simple truth, they had forgotten the raven.  For they were the singers of life, and not of death.”

I am reminded of the opening paragraph of Jill Dolan's Utopia in Performance, in which she discusses "the potential of different kinds of performance to inspire moments in which audiences feel themselves allied with each other, and with a broader, more capacious sense of a public, in which social discourse articulates the possible rather than the insurmountable obstacles to human potential.”

Transcendence. The transformation of life's pain into beauty. The attempt to make the ordinary extraordinary. National geographic photographer Dewitt Jones, in his inspiring DVD Extraordinary Vision, talks about realizing that his pragmatic orientation "I'll believe it when I see it" needed to be reversed: "I'll see it when I believe it."  Perhaps the arts, through the act of imagination, can help people believe it so that they can see it. Might inspire people with what is possible.
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Re-Runs: On Possibility

As I prepared for class today, I stumbled upon a post I wrote back in mid-July that I would like to re-post because...well, it just seems like a good time for it, and because it connects to what I have been exploring in Life Is a Verb. The link to the original is here.

On Possibility

"America is coming of age. Note the many changing aspects of America.

A maturing America means a nation conscious of its arts among all its people. Communities east, west, north, and south are searching for ways to make community life
more attractive.

The arts are at the very center of community development in this time of change...change for the better.

The frontier and all that it once meant in economic development and in the sheer necessity of building a nation is being replaced by the frontier of the arts. In no other way can
Americans so well express the core and blood of their democracy; for in the communities lies the final test of the acceptance of the arts as a necessity of everyday life.

In terms of American democracy, the arts are for everyone.They are not reserved for the wealthy, or for the well-endowed museum, the gallery, or the ever-subsidized regional professional
theatre. As America emerges into a different understanding of her strength, it becomes clear that her strength is in the people and in the places where the people live.

The people, if shown the way, can create art in and of themselves.

The springs of the American spirit are at the grass roots. Opportunities must exist in places where they never have existed before. A consciousness of the people, a knowledge of their
power to generate and nourish art, and a provision of ways in which they may do so are essential for our time.

If we are seeking in America, let it be a seeking for the reality of democracy in art. Let art begin at home, and let it spread through the children and their parents, and through the
schools, the institutions, and through government.

And let us start by acceptance, not negation--acceptance that the arts are important everywhere, and that they can exist and flourish in small places as well as in large; with money, or
without, according to the will of the people. Let us put firmly and permanently aside as a cliché of an expired moment in time that art is a frill. Let us accept the goodness of art
where we are now, and expand its worth in the places where people live."

Robert Gard, Arts in the Small Community (1969)

When I read this ringing endorsement of the power of the arts in the lives of ordinary people, and the power of ordinary people in the arts, and then I think of so many of the conversations we have here in the theatrosphere and face-to-face, I am reminded of the minister's funeral oration over the body of Alex, a young man who has committed suicide, in the movie The Big Chill. The minister looks out into the assembled mourners, mostly baby boomers who have lost their idealism, and he asks, "Where did Alex's hope go?" When each morning I catch up on the thoughts of so many theatre bloggers, I ask the same thing: Where did theatre artists' hope go? When did we become so convinced that what we do is so little desired, so little respected? When did we lose sight of our importance to a community's understanding of who it is and what it believes?

But those are the wrong questions. Those are questions based in blame and retribution, questions that points us to the past: how did we get here? It is what Carolynn Myss calls "woundology," a focusing on one's injuries and wrongs, a dwelling in the past instead of the future. How we got here is unimportant; where we are going is crucial. As artists, we need to commit to a conversation about possibility.

Peter Block, in his excellent book Community: The Structure of Belonging, describes what such a conversation is like:

The possibility conversation frees us to be pulled by a new future. The distinction is between possibility, which lives into the future, and problem solving, which makes improvements on the past. This distinction takes its value from an understanding that living systems are propelled by the force of the future, and possibility as we use it here...is one way of speaking of the future.

Possibility occurs as a declaration, and declaring a possibility wholeheartedly can, in fact, be the transformation. The leadership task is to postpone problem solving and stay focused on possibility until it is spoken with resonance and passion. The good news is that once we have fully declared a possibility, it works on us -- we do not have to work on it.

The challenge with possibility is it gets confused with goals, predictions, and optimism. Possibility is not about what we plan to happen, or what we think will happen, or whether things will get better. Goals, prediction, and optimism don't create anything; they just might make things a little better and cheer us up in the process. Nor is possibility simply a dream. Dreaming leaves us bystanders or observers of our lives. Possibility creates something new. It is a declaration of a future that has thye quality of being and aliveness that we choose to live into. It is framed as a declaration of the world that I want to inhabit. It is a statement of who I am that transcends our history, our story, our usual demographics. The power is in the act of declaring...The future is created through a declaration of what is the possibility we stand for.

What possibility do you stand for? Block asks, "What is the crossroads where you find yourself at this stage of your life or in the project around which we are assembled?" Or more directly, and to my mind even more powerfully: "What declaration of possibility can you make that has the power to transform the community and inspire you?" And the two "overarching questions" that point to the future: "What do we want to create together that would make the difference?" And "What can we create together than we cannot create alone?"

For me, I find myself at a crossroads in this project of expanding the reach of theatre throughout America where the artist and the community meets; where virtuosity and specialization meets human creativity and common wisdom; where fear meets trust.

I recently read a powerful book by Patrick Overton called Rebuilding the Front Porch of America: Essays on the Art of Community Making. In a chapter near the end of the book entitled "The Deep Voice: The Relationship Between Art, Spirituality, and Healing," Overton, who testified in front of Congress during the hearings about the NEA's support of controversial art in 1990, makes a declaration of possibility:

The arts aren't the cause of the crisis facing our culture, they are a cure. The arts aren't the source of the hurting in our society, they are a way of healing the pain. The arts are not in and of themselves, evil; they are an authentic expression of self that manifest in an individual's courage to face life as it really is. Art that is not an authentic expression of self is not art -- it is propaganda, or a product -- but it is not art. Art is the voice of the soul struggling to express what it means to be human.

He discusses participating in a think tank meeting for the Theatre Program of the NEA where there were two members who had a history together, and what seemed opposite visions of the arts.

One, from a very prestigious private foundation, kept talking about the beauty and magnificence of art because it lifted her spirit. To her, art makes meaning and beauty and this is the kind of art her foundation was interested in funding, This is art that inspires transcendence. The other person was from a theatre cpmpany from the south and he talked about art as that which must challenge the status quo. To him, art is not something created to be beautiful, or to make people pleasant or happy or comfortable. Art is something that confronts what is wrong and unjust in our society and is designed to make people feel uncomfortable. To him art reveals what is wrong with out world and, in so doing. demands something be done to change it. This is art that inspires transformation.

As I listened to them, it seemed to me they weren't really disagreeing. In essence, they were both saying the same thing, but in a different weay. To understand the nature of art, we have to understand it in both its "ascendant" and "descendant" purpose. Art can, through ascendance, through the elevation of the human spirit, help us transcend what we know, what we see, what we understand. When art does this it is "awful" (that is, full of awe). This is when art lifts the spirit. It is the exhale -- art that empties us and sucks the air out of our lungs because of its power and the truth of the simple/complexity it protrays in such a profound way. This is when art reveals mystery and truth and grasps us with such intensity that it transcends the human condition, and leaves us changed, forever. Art is one of the few things left in our world that can create this much-needed sense of "awe-fullness" in us.

But there is another function in art, art as descendence. Art can be an invitation (sometimes compelling) to descend from the surface of our lives -- beyond the facade and the masks, to the depths of our existence -- the deep place where truth exists. When art does this, it is the inhale -- driving us into ourselves, forcing us to gasp for air, taking in the force and intensity of the experience inside of us because of the power and the truth of the simple/compelcity it portrays in such a powerful way.

The one, the descendent function, reveals what is and shouldn't be. The other, the ascendent function, reveals what isn't but could be. Art can be beautiful and lift our spirits -- but art can also force us to face the truth -- to descend to the deep place and see the world as it is and shouldn't be. They both do the same thing -- they are a way we can transcend the condition of our lives -- a way we are transformed. These two functions cannot be separated -- they are converse images of the same creative force -- the same truth.

He then, in one of the most powerful descriptions of what art can do to heal, describes when he was invited to speak at the dedication of the Huntsville Vietnam Memorial in 1994. A Vietnam veteran himself, Overton had not spoken about his experience in Vietnam since his return to the US in 1968. Reluctantly, he agreed. He stood up in front of a crowd of older and younger people, mostly veterans of various wars, and he talked about his experiences on a flagship in the Gulf of Tonkin, and later in a naval hospital in Japan. He closed his speech by reading a poem that he wrote specifically for the dedication ceremony about his experiences with the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. The poem, entitled The Healing Wall, is stunning and deeply felt, and while I would like to share it with you, it is much too long for this already-long post. But in it, he describes his unwillingness to experience the wall, and then his eventual visit in which he looked for a name that he did not find -- his own, and he felt the pain of having survived. He ended the poem with this line: "No more walls, please, no more walls."

He writes:

I will never forget that afternoon in Huntsville. It was an emotional experience for all of us. Following my speech, people were very quiet, still. It reminded me of my visit to the Wall in DC. Slowly, people began to move, looking through the crowd for someone to hold, to hug. There was a need to touch. There was not a lot of talking. I saw men of my father's generation with tears running down their faces, something that is all too rare for them. I saw sons and fathers embrace -- with a kind of knowing and understanding that may not have existed before. That afternoon in May invited a small community, deeply wounded by the war, to heal. My speech and poetry did not do the healing. The people did. What I did was extend the invitation. What writing the poem did was invite me to name my own healing and celebrate it. And, by sharing the poem with that community, I invited others to name their own healing and celebrate it with each other as well.

After I read his poem, and imagined his reading of it, and after I finished the essay, I wondered whether it was ascendant or descendent art, and the more I thought about it, the more I felt that it was both, like a descent into hell and a resurrection. In Ireland, Frank Delaney tells a story of an Ulster king who always had his cart pulled by two horses, a black horse and a white horse, because they represented both sides of himself that he must always ride yoked together. Perhaps that is when art is truly transcendent and inspired.

Overton describes a possibility for theatre and for the arts -- a possibility of healing. Sometimes healing requires surgery -- the cutting of flesh and the inflicting of pain in order to remove that which is diseased. Other times, what is required is nursing, care-full tending and attention. But the motivation is the same: to heal. That is an attitude of goodwill, of caring.

And so I declare here the possibility of caring as a relationship between artist and community, a mutual healing to be shared through descendence and ascendance, inhaling and exhaling, together. I declare the possibility that our fellow citizens hunger for what we can create together, by bringing our imaginations together in one place, and that like Jesus with the loaves and fishes, we can feed everyone through an attitude of abundance. I declare the possibility that all people everywhere share this hunger, and deserve to be fed what will most nourish them.

What is your possibility? What is the crossroads where you find yourself at this stage of your life or work in the project around which we are assembled? What declaration of possibility can you make that has the power to transform the community and inspire you?





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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Prof's Response to Devilvet

In response to devilvet's suggestion that Don Hall, Isaac Butler, and I suspend our blogging activities until the current economic crisis is over, I can speak only for myself: this blog will continue. While I am currently in rehearsal, there are times when we bloggers will have to do more than one thing at a time. But I do call on devilvet, Don, and Isaac to join me in preparing a multi-blog response to the resignation of Dana Gioia as head of the NEA. Now is the time to put aside our disagreements and stand shoulder to shoulder, united against one common enemy: Christopher Charles Isherwood.

Give me a fist bump, guys. We can do this.

[Note to my readers: I have nothing against Christopher Isherwood, although I do think his Berlin stories are overrated.]
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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Life Is a Verb: Chapter 2: Start With "I"

[This is part of an on-going series devoted to Patti Digh's Life Is a Verb, a book that I highly recommend. While I will be discussing the book in detail, I will be focusing on the take-away ideas. The real wonder of this book is in the illustrative essays that are warm, funny, and whimsical, and the illustrations (provided by her 37 Days blog readers after she did an open call for works of art that were inspired by her blog posts). My musings should not be seen as a substitute for reading the book. Please go buy it.]

Chapter 2 of Patti Digh's Life Is a Verb is entitled "Start With 'I'." It is about the power we give away when we focus on what "They" must do in order for change to happen, as opposed to what I can do. Her recommendation: "Stop saying they." She describes an organization she was hired to consult at where people were allotted certain size offices, wall heights, and office furniture according to their position within the company, and the last straw for many of the employees was that Vice Presidents got visitors chairs with arms, whereas others who had visitors chairs had no arms (if they had visitors chairs at all). Those arms were symbols of a whole string of grievances, but when she asked them if they had suggestions how to fix the situation, everyone talked about what They had to do.

"It occurred to me," Patti writes, "We give up our power to the very people who took it away from us in the first place."

She goes on:

"Why do I step back from participating in my own life? To whom am I giving over the power about my own life? Why am I waiting for permission? Why am I letting other people measure my worth in cubicle wall height? What story am I telling myself about myself? What stories do They tell about me that's I've started believing? What does it mean to be in the shadow of Their story about me?"

Last night (or, rather, early this morning), I had a dream. I dreamed I was at a conference hotel in New York, and there was a huge lobby. In part of the lobby there was an area where a group of elderly people were hanging out, sort of like at the mall. They had some couches, and a table and chairs. When I approached, it became clear that these were all elderly theatre people who all knew me. I was very happy to see them, and I  sat down with them to chat. They immediately asked me what I was up to these days. I told them that I was applying for a position as Dean, which puzzled them until I said that part of my motivation for going after the job was because I enjoyed "turning on the money tap for people." One woman nodded sagely, and said "There ought to be more administrators who think like that." Then I started telling them about the <100K Project, and they immediately became engaged, smiling and nodding as I described the reason for the project, completing my sentences before I could get them out. "I just want to provide some sense --" I said. "--of stability," one woman said, beaming at me. "Yes!," I said. Then her eyes misted over: "I can't tell you how much I would have liked to have provided a stable home for my kids when I was working as an actress. But I had to travel from place to place all the time, so..." Her voice trailed off. Another woman spoke up, telling me about her three marriages that had broken up because she was never home to take care of things. I was totally embraced by their sense of understanding and acceptance for the changes I was trying to implement. They were smiling, and nodding at me, and ---- click "--Paulson, speaking of the proposed bailout" -- the alarm went off on the bedstand next to me. I hit the snooze bar, and laid there thinking about my dream.

I so infrequently remember my dreams, or even remember whether I dreamed or not, that it is a real event if I something sticks with me and is in the least bit vivid. Usually, my dreams are incredibly boring, especially compared to the much flashier and symbolically rich dreams my wife often has.

I had a dream last night," I'll tell her.

"Yes?," she'll say, interested in any insight into my opaque inner life.

"Yes. I was mowing the grass. Then I woke up." Ahem. "I think what this means," I go on, a bit desperate, "is that I have allowed my work life to get sort of overgrown and I need to trim it back a little." Right. Move over, Carl Jung.

But this dream was different. It didn't really need to be interpreted; what it meant was pretty clear. My wife, whose ability to illuminate even my lawnmowing dreams often leads to flashes of pure insight, said it best this morning: "You got the blessings of the elders!" I don't know, but I do know this: I felt totally rested, and totally at peace, and I have felt that way all day today despite the fact that my show opens in about a week, I was almost out of gas in a town that is suffering from rampant gas shortages, and I had a radio interview about my show at noon. I should have been frantic, tight as a tick. But I wasn't. My back, which has been killing me in the morning for weeks, was painfree and relaxed.

Something important happened during that dream, if today's painless mood is any indication, though I can't quite put my finger on what it was. If, as Jungian psychology would say, every part of a dream is a part of you, then I had just received the blessings of some wizened part of myself, a positive, open, supportive part that seemed to know and approve of my efforts on behalf of others. And as a result, I feel more open and generous toward others, calmer and happier. And rested, when I ought to be exhausted.

When I write this blog, I seem to find it important that my readers be persuaded, that they approve. They. And when they do what I do, which is only leave a comment if I have read something I disagree with (because what would be the point of simply approving of somebody else's idea, right?), then I have to fight with them because 1) I am attache to being right (p 77), and 2) I want their approval. And this extends to larger issues as well. Am I really all that focused on trying to reform the TCG and American Theatre? Do I really think it necessary to deliver media recognition to theatres across the country, and to counter negative images of rural and small town life? Does the <100K Project really rely on getting Them to change?

"Yes, we need to work on the systems...There's no doubt work needs to be done there, and there's no doubt we don't sometimes have the power to make those changes ourselves. But many times we can't wait for the systems that created the mess to fix themselves. We can't wait for the conditions to be right for change. It will take too long. It's not in Their best interest: things are just dandy from where They sit in Their chairs with arms. The crown fits them."

The solution?

"We cannot give our power away to the people who took it from us in the first place. Put arms on your own chair. If arms are that important to you, then duct tape them on if you must. Find the change you can make and make it. You'll be funding your own revolution. Start with I."

It's not that I don't care about my Nylachi afficionados, or the TCG, or the mass media. I just can't wait for you to be persuaded. I need to find the change I can make and make it. Over at R. Winsome, Rex is busy devising his own manifesto for a way to break out of the commercial arts world. His is built on Richard Florida's The Creative Class, mine was inspired by Daniel Quinn's Beyond Civilization. His solutions may not be exactly what I think, but when I visit his site and see comments that focus on why his vision isn't possible, or isn't practical, or isn't attractive in some way, I want to take him to his own inner conference hall corridor and let him spend some time with his inner elders. Same with George Hunka. A recent exchange of comments on his blog resulted in this sidenote from George: "I will need to go through our correspondence and previous posts, Scott -- a substantive discussion here which hasn't given rise to churlishness on either side, though no doubt we'll disagree on some essentials. Something's clearly gone wrong." George has created a vision of theatre minima, and taken the time to develop his ideas step by step, post by post. He's started with himself, and not insisted that anyone else change first.

Many of us would like to reject the status quo and create something new. But we can't wait for conditions to change, and we certainly can't wait to be empowered by those who have achieved a level of success in that system or who have committed their lifeblood to working within it. We need to duct tape arms on our own chair, or sit on the floor, or better yet straddle our chair (which is something that can't be done by someone with a chair with arms).

But it starts with I, not They.
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Monday, September 22, 2008

Life Is a Verb: The Mini-Series

On Saturday evening, my wife and I went downtown to our iconic independent bookstore, Malaprops, to hear my friend Patti Digh read from her new book, Life Is a verb: 37 Days to Wake Up, Be Mindful, and Live Intentionally. We had never been to a reading at Malaprops, nor a book reading anywhere else for that matter, and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. We had a cup of great coffee, settled at a little table, and listened as Patti read portions of her wonderful book.

As some of you know, I am currently in rehearsal for my production of Psycho Beach Party, which opens October 1st, and this weekend was my last days off until October 11th. So would I have been sitting at Malaprops Saturday night if I didn't know Patti, and if I didn't know that she was hoping my wife and I would be there? Hell no. I would have been lying on my couch with a cat on my lap reading a book and snoozing intermittently while my wife knits. But because I knew Patti, I went, and afterwards I was glad I did, and having done so once, I will be more likely to go to Malaprops for another reading. Which is, of course, the theatre moral of the story: there are few things more powerful than a personal invitation from somebody you actually know.

While I was waiting for the reading to begin, I opened the book randomly to p 77, which read as follows:

"How are you doing?" she asked as I entered her office.

"I'm okay," I said.

She sat, quietly, looking at me.

"Okay, I'm a little stressed out, I guess." My accupuncturist, Hanna, invokes truth by silence better than anyone else I know.

I was in a situation at the time that was maddening -- and in which I knew I was right. So, I held forth. She listened. And listened some more. "Let's get you on the table and we can continue this conversation," she said.

Then I was prone, under a sheet, and she was holding my hand, taking my pulses. She paused.

"Patti, why do you yhink you are so attached to being right about this situation?" she asked.

Blink.

Why am I so attached to being right? Oh, I don't know, this is just a wild stab, but maybe --

BECAUSE I'M RIGHT?

"Because it's so clear I'm right," I said. "Can't you see I'm right? There's just no way I'm not right!"

"Why is being right about this so important to you?"

Blink.

"And doesn't everyone have their own version of right?" she asked.

Blink.

"I wonder what would happen if you gave up your need to be right?"

Damn. She can do more in four quiet questions than I can do in a lifetime.

I closed the book, took a deep breath, drank some more coffee. My wife was knitting, and at one point she was quiet while she concentrated on some fine point, so I took the pause to open up the book at random again.

Page 77. Again.

Then the reading started. Patti came out, charming and whimsically funny, and she explained the background of the book, how she originally started her 37 Days blog to after her stepfather passed away 37 days after being diagnosed with cancer, and how she wanted to write something for her young daughters to serve as a guidebook. It was a gift for them. Then she started dipping in to read a few sections. She read a beautiful section called "Write to Remember," about a relative with Alzheimer's. And then she started a new section:

"How are you doing?" she asked as I entered her office.

"I'm okay," I said.

She sat, quietly, looking at me.

"Okay, I'm a little stressed out, I guess." My accupuncturist, Hanna, invokes truth by silence better than anyone else I know.

Page 77. Again.

After the reading was over, I asked my wife to open her copy of the book randomly. She looked at me like I was nuts, but did. I wanted to see whether there was something in the binding of this book that made all the copies automatically open to page 77. Nope -- she turned to another page entirely.

Now, believe it or not, I have a certain mystical orientation. (I know, I know -- I come across as a total left-brain zealot.) So when the universe is trying to tell me something, I try to pay attention. So I read further. Page 78:

"As the poet Rumi wrote, somewhere between right and wrong is a place we can meet and talk. Shouting across the expanse of that field only makes us hoarse -- what if we each walk toward the center instead? Even when we are right -- when someone is using racial slurs, for example -- we need to find better ways of bringing others along rather than alienating them. Most of all, differences of opinion are opportunities for learning."

And page 79:

"Choose with integrity: Speak up, yet detach from 'rightness.' Stand tall, yet bend to meet others. Move from Why aren't they doing more? to Why aren't we doing more? to Why am I not doing more? Do something. Extend yourself."

That evening, I started reading the book from the beginning. Each page seemed for me. Page 7:

"No revolution in outer things is possible without prior revolutions in one's inner way of being. Whatever change you aspire to...must be preceded by a change in heart"
    -- I Ching hexagram 49


I haven't really mentioned it, but last week was a little stressful. Without going into great detail, I had a little health issue that had me thinking it might be the c-word. A hurried trip to the doctor seems to be leading in another direction, one that some antibiotics will take care of. But for a couple days, in the midst of teaching and rehearsing, I looked my life in the face fairly directly.

Then this reading.

For quite a while, I have used this blog as place to discuss things "out there" -- the theatre, the culture, artists. And despite the recent controversy I provoked, I think I need to take this blog inward for a while. Use it to do some reflection, take some stock. And I think I'll do it by following Patti Digh's book. So far, I think she's written it for me. But you might want to read it, too. It's awfully good.

Anyway, if you like the outwardly focused Theatre Ideas, you'll probably need to ignore me for a while -- probably about a month, or 37 days to be exact. For those of you who will be embarrassed to listen while a middle-aged man gets introspective, I totally understand. And who knows, I may get impatient myself.

Nevertheless, I think I'm going to take an inward turn for a while.
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Economic Bailout

This has nothing to do with theatre. But I think that this discussion of the economic bailout is persuasive.
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Friday, September 19, 2008

Axelrod: Artists and American Identity

Another thought-provoking post by Laura Axelrod, this one on "Our American Identity." Declaring that "we have lost sight of who we are to each other," Laura asks all of us, artists and otherwise, to relinquish the tendency toward demonization and caricature in favor of seeking out the similarities we share as human beings. She concludes, "it is vital that artists and writers step in to act as witnesses. We have the unique ability to remind people of their humanity. We don't need to be spokespeople for them. Instead, we can inspire people to lead themselves." I like Laura's choice of verbs: "remind," "witness," and "inspire." She presents a more humanist view of the function of an artist, the purpose of art that reminds me of the vision Jill Dolan describes in her marvelous book Utopia in Performance.
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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Local Art

Laura at Trainling Spouse Blues writes a report from the field called "Act Locally." Check it out. As far as my own commentary: this is the power of being part of a community, a locally-known citizen with people who know you informally. Unlike the imported artists, you have a built in following. It takes a lot of advertising to make up for the lack of that connection. Suddenly, the production is not a commodity, it is a relationship.
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Ayn Rand: The Arts and Metaphysical Value Judgments

I'd like to start this post with a simple statement of fact, one that raises many issues for me. The statement:

Recently, I have been reading Ayn Rand's The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature. 

The first issue it raises for me (and I suspect for many people reading this post) is reading Ayn Rand at all. What I know of Rand's philosophy, with its focus on a ferocious libertarian belief in capitalism and egotism, threatens to create air bubbles in my bloodstream. So on the level of broad philosophical orientation, Rand and I are not in agreement.

The second issue is one of style. When Rand moves from the description of general abstractions to specific illustrations, I find her style to be abrasive and arrogant. This is magnified by the fact that I often don't agree with her evaluations, so her slash-and-burn literary style is particularly irritating. I suspect I wouldn't have liked Rand in real life -- or at least, I wouldn't have liked her philosophical persona in real life.

For many people, this would be enough to prevent them from having picked up The Romantic Manfiesto in the first place, and if they did pick it up in error, it would be enough to make them peremptorily dismiss its ideas as unworthy of consideration. This is a particularly American phenomenon, the rejection or acceptance of a person's ideas based on their personal style -- in politics, it shows up in people voting for Bush over Gore in 2000 in response to the question "who would you most like to have a beer with?" In the blogosphere, it shows up in those people who refuse to consider certain ideas because the blogger's style of writing offends them in some way. To me, this emphasis on personal style to the exclusion of substance is a mistake, one that I fight in reading Rand.

At the level of substance, however, there is much to recommend in this particular book by Rand. She lays out a purpose to the arts that is both resonant and powerful, and that provides the reader with the tools to consider works of art and their meaning. While I don't think it worthwhile to lay her manifesto out in great detail, there are certain aspects of it that pertain to some of the questions currently being discussed throughout the 'sphere.

Rand carefully builds her arguments one block at a time. Man (and yes, she uses the male pronoun throughout to reflect all humankind -- she's writing this in the 1960s, and it seems to reflect her own personal preference for so-called "masculine" characteristics) experiences the world through his senses -- and the individual things he perceives are "percepts": sensory perceptions. In order to survive, however, man must generalize, and he does so by linking at least two percepts into a "concept" -- an abstraction that creates a class of things, of percepts. So the perception of a couple tall things with dry a cylinder base and a spreading canopy of green things becomes the concept "tree." Language itself converts percepts into concepts. Then multiple concepts are joined to create larger concepts -- say, "vegetation," which includes trees, bushes, plants, etc. And so on. The top of the heap of abstraction is philosophy, which is built on very important abstract concepts.

So our experience of life is first perceptual, then conceptual.

The problem is that as the concepts become more and more complex and multi-faceted, they become harder to experience efficiently and powerfully. This is where art comes in. "Art brings man's concepts to the perceptual level of his consciousness," she writes, "and allows him to grasp them directly, as if they were percepts." In other words, art puts flesh and bones back on the abstractions, so that they can be experienced through senses again. Thus, "Art is a concretization of metaphysics" ("the science that deals with the fundamental nature of reality"). Art is "a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments."

Art reflects an artists metaphysics and epistemology -- what he is and where he is, in other words "what is his nature (including his means of cognition) and the nature of the universe in which he acts." These abstract questions she makes more concrete through a series of questions that form the basis of metaphysics and epistomology:

"Is the universe intelligible to man, or unintelligible and unknowable? Can man find happiness on earth, or is he doomed to frustration and despair? Does man have the power of choice, the power to choose his goals and to achieve them -- or is he a helpless plaything of forces beyond his control, which determines his fate? Is man, by nature, to be valued as good, or to be despised as evil?"

"These," she continues, are metaphysical questions, but the answers to them determine the kind of ethics men will accept and practice; the answers are the link between metaphysics and ethics.. And although metaphysics as such is not a mormative science, the answer to this category of questions assume, in man's mind, the function of metaphysical value-judgments, since they form the foundation of all his moral values."

An artist's subject matter and style reflects these metaphysical value judgments. His choice of subject matter reflects those things he thinks are important, those things that are important enough to receive his focus. The artist's style reflects how he sees these subjects. So, to reiterate: "Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments."

It seemed to me that Rand is answering the question asked in the title of a recent post by Isaac: "How Do We Put Our Values in Our Art?" The answer: we can't NOT put our values in our art. It is reflected in the subject matter and the style we choose. When, for instance, Neil Labute writes a play, we see his answers to the metaphysical questions writ large: "Is man, by nature, to be valued as good, or to be despised as evil?" Answer: evil. This orientation, which is also shared by most Judeo-Christian religions, especially those with a Puritan streak, is reflected in the way his characters interact and are motivated. And it is an orientation that is shared by many, many Modernist writers of the 20th century.

Even a play that is seen as "escapist" reflects such value judgments, as the playwright creates world in which his characters operate. The Lion King, for instance, has a very clear metaphysics: man (or lions) has the "power to choose his goals and to achieve them," the universe is intelligible (the circle of life), and it is populated with men who are basically good (and who can defeat those who are not). It is a heroic worldview, rather than a defeatist one. There are those who will reject that worldview as being "naive" or "a lie," and that is because they have answered those metaphysical questions differently.

Looked at in this way, every work of art, and every artist's approach to his career, says something about the world in which we live. If, as an artist, you see yourself as a "helpless plaything of forces beyond your control" (e.g., the market, the unions, American society), then you may be more likely to see others as controlling your fate and abrogate your power to choose goals and achieve them to an "unintelligible and unknowable" universe where the randomness of luck is the most powerful force (ala Don Hall's blackjack game). Other metaphysical value judgments may lead you in other directions. If you believe in a deterministic universe where everything is set and cannot be changed, then a suggestion that rejecting the status quo will be nonsensical to you. If you "sell your soul" in order to "succeed," then that also reflects certain beliefs about the universe (and, on a local level, the society that reflects that universe).

Can there be works of art that I would value aesthetically, but reject metaphysically? Absolutely. Does that mean those works shouldn't have been created? Not in the least. But at the same time, aesthetic success doesn't negate metaphysical questions. Simply because a work of art is "good," is "aesthetically effective," is "beautiful" doesn't mean it can't be rejected metaphysically. In fact, aesthetically powerful works that are morally repugnant are the locus point for some of our most violent controversies regarding censorship. One of the reasons Jesse Helms reacted so strongly against the Mapplethorpe photos (although he certainly wouldn't have recognized this consciously) is that images he found morally repugnant were presented in a way that was incredibly beautiful aesthetically. That was Mapplethorpe's most powerful rebellion: to make beautiful images of practices that were regarded as objectionable. Same with Piss Christ: it wouldn't have been half as objectionable if it wasn't so damned aesthetically pleasing.

For me, despite Rand's style, and despite some of her value judgments regarding specific works of art, I find Rand's basic understanding of the role of the arts persuasive, especially since it helps me understand some of the reasons why I am a proponent of a certain kind of art, a certain orientation regarding purpose, a certain understanding of the role and responsibilities of the artist in our society.


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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Preach It, Laura

I'm going to link without (much) comment to Laura Axelrod's "Where We Stand," counting the minutes until the second installment. While I might quibble with the emphasis on the artist as rebel (I'd say it is just one of many possible functions that would be valuable in our society), the overall message is so strong it gives me goose bumps.
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Actors: What Do You Think of This?

This is a page from a recent book on managing your career as an actor. My question is normative, not descriptive; not "Is this the way it is," but "Is this the way it oughta be?" And if you answer "no" to that question, to quote TalkingPoints.com: "psssst. Do something."
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Money and Art

Over at Gasp, Laura Axelrod draws our attention as artists to the current economic crisis. "It will affect you and your work," she writes. "Something with this kind of impact will change our culture. It will alter the way society sees itself and the world." Isaac followed with a post entitled, "Money, the Arts, Etc" and Matt Freeman discussed "Laura Axelrod on Money and the Arts." [Update: another contribution from Adam Thurman at Mission Paradox.]

I think Laura is right, and we do need to talk about this. On an immediate level, any slump in the economy that negatively affects the stock market will affect foundation endowments, which means grants will be smaller and harder to come by. If the economy suffers, people have less disposable income, or are less free in disposing of it, which will impact ticket sales. When people are suffering in our society for economic reasons, money gets shifted in that direction and away from the arts, which are considered "extras." If tax collections decline because there is less money in the economy, then school budgets decline as well, and arts education suffers.

The fact is that the arts live on the fat of the economy.

But Laura wants us to deal with this on the personal level, not just the macro level. "I'm not saying that we should come up with a public policy position on the matter. I'm talking about dealing with this problem both in our work and in our lives."

So much of our conversation tends to be about money and how it impacts our artistic choices and opportunities. It seems to me that there are several possibilities every time we create a production:

1. Lose money
2. Break even
3. Make a little money
4. Make a lot of money

The first option might have the most artistic freedom: if you are planning to lose money, and you can afford to lose money, then you don't have to compromise in any way. For this option to be effective, it helps if you have an independent source of income, which has been the case for many theatrical pioneers. Stanislavki, for instance, was the scion of a fairly wealthy family (although he had to run the family business as well as the Moscow Art Theatre during the early years). However, if you don't have an independent income, then losing money is something you can only do for a certain amount of time before you wear out.

Breaking even is often the goal of small, independent theatres. If they break even, these theatres feel they've done well. When the balance sheet is tallied, the definition of breaking even usually doesn't include the value of the time put into the project, which is contributed by the artists. In this case, breaking even means paying for the space, the materials, the advertising and publicity. In other words, having ticket prices pay for all the non-theatre stuff. Like the previous option, breaking even works best if you have a financial situation that allows you to catch some rest between shows, or at least not do the break even shows in addition to a demanding day job. Like losing money, breaking even has a shelf life -- at a certain age, the contributions of time becomes more expensive, as your contribution begins to impact your family and social life and involvement in other activities.

Making a little money is cause for celebration. You're in the black, those who contribute their time get a little reward for their efforts and so are a bit more likely to continue to contribute their time , this allowing the process to continue. If you are really lucky, you start making enough money to allow a few people to reduce their day job hours or devote their time to the theatre full time. Often, the first person to get freed up is the one who handles the administrative aspects of the theatre, because nobody else wants to do that job, and there is a perception that a focus on these parts of the theatre will pay dividends in the form of increased attendance or increased fundraising. Hope rises in this situation -- a breakthrough seems possible if only the right show can get the right review. If that doesn't occur, then this version has a shelf-life, too, especially since those who continue to donate their time start to resent those who are getting paid.

Finally, there is making a lot of money. This is the jackpot moment that catapults a young theatre to the forefront. Usually, overnight sensations have been building through the previous three stages for many years. Once this happens, a different set of pressures arise, as artists often become fearful that the success won't last, and begin creating work that seems sure to continue the trajectory.

All four of these outcomes are based on looking at art as a commodity, as something that is created and packaged to be sold within the marketplace. Once conceived of in this way, all of the traditional commodity aspects come along with it: branding, increasing customer base, competition from other brands, etc. Since many theatres exist within large cities, expenses are high, competition for the attention of the public is fierce, and alternatives are many.

My question is whether there is a way to disconnect from the commodity economy. Is there a way to make the arts less a product? Is there a way to move the arts into another type of economy? For instance, while still based in a money economy, a church doesn't really sell a product, but rather something else -- an experience? A shared identity? An extended family? [Etch-a-Sketch erase*] In Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken talks about a workshop that took place at a large agricultural chemical manufacturing plant, where the attendees, all employees of the company, were intoruced to the "spaceship Earth" model and then put into groups and given a goodly amount of time to create a spaceship that was enclosed, needed to be self-sufficient, and had to last for 100 years. One of the interesting things is that the employees created a model that took along actual artists rather than a stock of DVDs and CDs, because for a 100-year self-contained trip they wanted people who could contribute new stuff that pertained to their journey. How might we get our artistic contributions looked as in this way?

Since the 1960s, studies have shown that the arts in the current capitalist economy cannot support themselves. Since then, our response has been to seek contributions to make up the difference, but such contributions ebb and flow according to the strength of the economy and to the focus of our society. In many ways, we have come to rely on the kindness of strangers, an approach that has worked for us about as effectively as it worked for Blanche DuBois.

So the questions that Laura leads me to is how to disconnect from the global economy as much as possible, and build on a more solid footing. There are economists and social thinkers who have written about things like barter, local economies, local currency, collectives and co-ops, intentional communities, and a wide variety of alternative economic approaches. Given how ineffective the current artistic economy has been, I wonder whether we might want to experiment with these alternatives. After all, it's not as if the status quo is working for most of us.bu

* I have decided that I like the image from my childhood of how you could create some image on the Etch-a-Sketch, and then erase it and start over.]
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