Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Intersection of Creativity and Inspiration

Technology-in-education guru Will Richardson, a former middle-school principal turned author and national speaker, has a blog devoted to his thoughts. Yesterday, he did a post called "Playin' PVC" about a group of high school students who were inspired by the Blue Man Group to create their own musical instruments. Check out the post, and then follow the link to the group's MySpace site.

This is a good example of what happens when you allow students to follow their creativity. Instead of giving them a cookie-cutter "music experience," by allowing them to experiment (clearly, the music teacher has given them space in the music classroom, and the principal gave them time to perform at an assembly) they learned so much more about being an artist, and a showman. And if a science teacher is following up, they probably could also learn some concepts related to the physics of sound.

Would theatre education be better served by this model?

Friday, February 15, 2008

Ken Robinson: Educating for Creativity

If you haven't seen this TED presentation by creativity expert Ken Robinson, it is worth watching. Robinson contends not that we are educated into creativity, but that we are educated out of it. Frequently on this blog I will receive comments that reflect a very deep sense of anger at teachers. Very often, this is connected to something I have written that seems prescriptive or judgmental (who, me?). This tells me something, not only about how my own personal style is received (and I usually attempt to modulate how I say things when it is brought to my attention), but to what extent our educational system is built not on helping students develop the skills and ideas they need to develop their own unique and individual selves, but rather on molding students into a specific shape that mostly matches what the teacher values. If you look at my guest post at "Theatre Is Territory," for instance, you will see something that sounds as if I am trying to allow young people to develop their own thoughts and feelings, but that actually reflects what it is that I value. I say that I have no interest in developing acolytes, and I say that the DDSers were good examples of independent thinkers, but let's look at it from another direction: I am a contentious thinker who feels it is necessary to challenge whatever is considered conventional wisdom about a particular issue, and so were the DDSers. So did I create acolytes? Perhaps so.

At the same time, what is the alternative? To "profess" (the root of "professor") is to persuade, right? Yes, as a teacher I have information to impart, but here is a fact: most of what I teach is compiled from books. Books that I get from the library; books that you can check out yourself. There is no magic here. As a teacher, I am given enough time to check out a stack of books, cull through them for information, and construct the gathered information into a memorable form. I have been taught how to determine what the "best" books are to look through, so that I don't waste an enormous amount of time trying to read a mountain of material. But the fact is that, with a little help, anyone could do the same thing. I teach theatre history to undergraduates -- what level of knowledge about, say, the commedia dell arte do I need to acquire to be able to communicate the basic information that a young theatre major needs to know about that topic? Do I need to be an expert in every aspect of the topic? No, I need to know the broad outline -- enough to cover in a 50-minute period, and a little more to answer questions. What makes me a good teacher -- and I am a good teacher, at least according to student evals -- is an ability to turn information (facts) into an interesting story so that the facts have some sort of relevance and so they stick.

But what my value really is as a teacher is not in the delivery of information in an interesting facts, but in "professing" an approach to life. If I am doing my job, students will be inspired -- not necessarily by the information, but by my engagement, my excitement, my ability to drag the past into the present and project it into the future. In that way, I don't mind creating acolytes. If young people can graduate and I see they are engaged and excited, then I feel as if I have done my job.

Nevertheless, and Sir Ken Robinson points out, professors often "live in their head and slightly over to one side." His story about the choreographer is a cautionary tale for all of us who educate young people. We have a tendency, as teachers, to see struggling by a student in terms of their failure rather than our own. We insist that they buckle down, focus, acquire discipline, but at the same time it may be that we just haven't been teaching in a way that allows the student to think. The choreographer, as a child, needed to move in order to think, but in our classrooms we make everyone sit still, whether that helps them or not. It is a humbling thing to realize how the things that you do out of a desire to empower and inspire may be having the opposite effect.

Ultimately, it may be impossible to do otherwise entirely, but being aware of one's own orientations and trying, as often as possible, to empower those who aren't naturally oriented in the same direction as you are is, I think an important thing to keep in mind. It is certainly something I wrestle with regularly.

Anyway, I hope you will watch Ken Robinson's very entertaining and thought-provoking TED speech. And while you're there (TED.com), watch some of the others as well.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

On Taking Action

Rebecca Z, in the comments to my post "It's Beginning to Happen," writes: "You're a great cheerleader about "change", don't get me wrong, but how are you going to act upon this need for change? What will you do to make a difference? And, writing about this stuff, while a great start, is not the answer I'm looking for. Feel free to point me in the direction of past blogs where you talk about action you may have taken, but it just seems like a lot of conversation."

It's a good question -- one that I'd like to address perhaps in a roundabout manner by talking about history.

In November 1930, a 29-year-old play reader with a minimal professional theatre experience began a series of weekly talks in which he passionately described his vision for an American theatre. At first, his audience was made up of a few friends and acquaintances – in fact, the talks took place in his own hotel room. But word soon spread of the excitement of his ideas, and soon he was speaking in a hall that seated 200. They all came to hear him describe an idea of the theatre that was idealistic, committed, and totally different than what then existed on Broadway. He would talk for hours at a time, shouting and waving his arms, and when the lecture was over, the conversation would continue through the night at coffee shops and restaurants. By May, through the power of his words alone, he had inspired enough people to believe in his vision that a new theatre was born. It was called the Group Theatre, and his name was Harold Clurman.

I refer to Clurman as much because of what he was not as what he was at the time he was talking the Group Theatre into existence: he was not a Broadway insider, he was not a seasoned professional. He was just a man with an academic knowledge of dramatic literature, a belief in certain values, and an intense desire to create something valuable and needed. While now we hail Clurman as a co-founder of arguably the most important theatre in American dramatic history, the fact is that for the first two years of the Group Theatre’s existence he did little more than talk. When the Group members retreated to Brookfield, Connecticut in the summer of 1931 to prepare their first production, Clurman contributed very little of a practical nature. He didn’t direct, that was Lee Strasberg’s job; he didn’t handle the finances, that was Cheryl Crawford’s job; he didn’t act, that was everybody else’s job. And yet, his role was crucial to the future success of this revolutionary theatre, because he was its spiritual leader. Every afternoon, Clurman would give lectures about what they were trying to do, why they were trying to do it, why the American theatre needed them to succeed. He imbued the assembled artists with the inner fire of a sense of purpose, and then he kept that fire burning. Why did they listen to him? It certainly wasn’t because of any worldly power or authority; it was because of intensity of his vision.

I'm no Harold Clurman, but I do see him as a role model. Sometimes what is needed is a vision that can inspire others. Marx didn't do anything to inspire the proletarian revolution beyond writing Das Capital, but his words, his analysis of the situation, his vision of the future inspired those who did. Similarly, I admire Clurman not only for what he said, but what he wrote. Over the course of his long career, he directed important productions all over the world, but he also took the time to write about his ideas, his reasons for doing theatre, his values, and his beliefs. The Collected Works of Harold Clurman runs over a thousand pages, and the editors of that volume note that those pages represent about a third of the total amount he wrote for newspapers and journals, and furthermore that anthology doesn't even include his full-length books Ibsen, All People Are Famous, The Fervent Years, and On Directing, books that have inspired generations of theatre artists and that represent many hundreds of additional pages. One might argue that Clurman's greatest impact on the American theatre has been through his writing more than through his productions, as important as Awake and Sing was.

Add to that the fact that Clurman also was a university professor, and you start to get a sense of the scope of his sense of responsibility. For him, it wasn’t enough to simply make art, it was important to put the underlying principles and observations into words that could be passed on to others. This reflected a deep sense of the future, a realization that while the work itself is written on water, the ideas could live on and serve as the inspirational foundation for future growth.

I think we all contribute to change through our particular areas of influence. I am an academic -- I am trying to educate a new generation of artists. So if I am going to walk my talk, as Rebecca seems to be asking, that means that I must begin teaching the values I am proposing, and addressing the skills that such values require to reach fruition.

But I also must write. This blog is the starting point for more formal writing on the same topics, but that is not why I maintain it. I blog because I have had evidence that there are people out there who are frustrated, who feel as if their talents are going unused, who feel as if they want to live a different life in the arts, and who need to hear that their frustrations are shared. They need to read ideas that question whether the status quo is necessary, or necessarily the best way. They need to hear that their desire to live their life outside of Nylachi, and to have financial stability, to have a house, to have a family, to be part of a community is not out of bounds. And they need someone who is trying, one step at a time, to figure out a new way of creating theatre that might fulfill those dreams.

Over the past week or two, I have begun the process of theorizing a different model. These posts can be found here, here, and here. The overall goal is developed here. It isn't easy -- it takes a lot of thought, research, and creativity. The hardest thing is to erase my innate preconceptions and try to think both historically (by uncovering past models that might be adapted to today's circumstances) and ahistorically (by beginning with first principles). In the coming weeks, I will continue this project and discuss, for instance, how one might choose a place to have a theatre, what underlying aesthetic principles might give it the best chance of being sustainable, what sort of space might be workable, what sort of approach to audience building might be effective. While I most likely won't be putting these ideas into a theatre of my own, I will be trying to think through the options and their ramifications, and with any luck I may create an advisory service that could help people willing to put the ideas into practice.

All of this may seem like mere conversation, but as Athol Fugard pointed out in Master Harold...and the boys, we have to first imagine a new reality before we can bring it into being. That's my contribution. That's the action I take.

Taking Responsibility

In the comments to an earlier post, Matt Freeman expresses objections to what he considers an "us versus them" approach to this discussion. He writes: "We need to stop talking in terms of us versus them, especially when "they" are "us."

Perhaps Matt will find this surprising, but we are in agreement. They are us. That's the point.

I am reading a book entitled NonViolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall B. Rosenberg. In Chapter 2: Communication That Blocks Compassion, Rosenberg lists "Denial of Responsibility" as one of those things. He writes: "We deny responsibility for our actions when we attribute their cause to:
  • Vague, impersonal forces.
  • Our condition, diagnosis, personal or psychological history.
  • The actions of others.
  • The dictates of authority.
  • Group pressure.
  • Institutional policies, rules and regulations.
  • Gender roles, social riles, or age roles.
  • Uncontrollable impulses." (p 20)
He goes on to give an example that I think is relevant here. When serving as a consultant for a school district, he heard a teacher remark. ""I hate giving grades. I don't think they are helpful and they create a lot of anxiety on the part of the students. But I have to give grades: it is district policy.' We had just been practicing how to introduce language in the classroom that heightens consciousness of responsibility for one's actions. I suggest that the teacher translate the statement 'I have to give grades because it's district policy' to 'I choose to give grades because I want...' She answered without hesitation, 'I choose to give grades because I want to keep my job,' while hastening to add, 'But I don't like saying it that wat. It makes me fee responsible for what I am doing.' 'That's why I want you to do it that way,' I replied." (p 21)

I believe, with Rosenberg, that we have to stop shifting blame to forces "out there," because it lets us not take responsibility for our actions, and by doing so it disempowers us. We all have power. When we move to NYC because "that's where the work is," not because we want to live in NYC, we have shifted responsibility to others. We're not to blame if, by our actions, we are supporting a system we don't like -- hey, that's "the way it is," right? (Cf. "vague, impersonal forces above). Similarly, people in regional theatres are making choices. When they mount a huge capital campaign to pay for an enormous new theatre, as the Guthrie did recently, they are making choices about what they feel is important. Does anyone know of a regional theatre doing a huge campaign to raise the salaries of artists and to allow the theatre to maintain a resident company at a middle class salary? Perhaps I am missing something. The argument people will make is that nobody wants to contribute to raise salaries, they want to contribute to buildings. But that is because capital campaign managers have devised a way to effectively sell buildings . Have they made a similar effort to sell working conditions?

We can't continue to deny responsibility anymore. We can't keep shifting responsibility to vague, impersonal forces. We need to acknowledge the problems, acknowledge how those problems are being perpetuated, acknowledge how our actions tacitly supports those problems, and then do one of two things: stop complaining about the problems, or do something to change them -- even if all we do is refuse to tacitly support them through our actions. If you can't see clear to doing it for yourself, then do it for people like the actress that Mike Daisey describes, who is talented, committed, and very, very tired.

As If I Needed Another Platform

Ian Mackenzie asked me to write a guest post at "Theatre Is Territory." So I wrote something about theatre education, which he aptly titled "Theatre school in the age of compliance." Thanks, Ian, for giving me a chance to talk to your readers.

It's Beginning to Happen...

...can you sense it?

Don Hall feels it. And he's calling for action.
Mike Daisey feels it.
Nick Keenan feels it.
Nick feels it.
Travis Bedard feels it.
Matt feels it. (Note: Well, maybe not. See comments.)
Isaac feels it.
Adam feels it.
The Director feels it.
Mr. Excitement feels it.
Butts in Seats feels it.
Tom feels it.

No matter what you feel the answer is, there seems to be great agreement in the theatrosphere that the current system is broken. We may look back years from now and see Mike Daisey's performance as the tipping point, the moment when the desire for change really started to gather momentum. Or maybe, as Don says, we are all being infused with Obama's sense of hope. I don't know. All I know is that, instead of talking about tips for staying afloat in the current system, there seems to be a willingness to acknowledge there are problems and start considering alternatives.

Don is promising an "Off Loop Freedom Charter" for the Chicago theatre people. Others in New York are trying to make changes to the Showcase Code. I am trying to describe a regional "theatre of the tribe." Each alternative will be different, but they are the same in their desire for change.

But Don is right: "We can celebrate the truth of Daisey's article, we can cheer him and stand in cyber-solidarity, but nothing - NOTHING - gets any better if we don't get up off of our asses and do something to change a broken and corrupt paradigm. Changing our model of behavior - shifting the entrenched paradigm - is a task that will not be easy. We all know what is wrong here, folks. It's time to catch some of that Obama-fever and dare to hope and make some changes."

It's time.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Trumped!

Nick over at Rat Sass, in a post aptly titled "Nylachi...You're Fired," has designated me the Donald Trump of the alternative theatre world. I love it! I'm going to start combing may hair from way over on the side from now on! I think I can do that pugnaciously pouty mouth thing he does really good, too. I can't wait to have my own reality show, "The Tribe." Here's the show's cut line: "You say you want to be in my tribe? Prove it!"

The issue Nick is discussing is a good one. In a comment on a previous post, he described my fairly stringent rejection of all things fame-and-fortune as Puritanical. In his post, he points to Steppenwolf as an example of a group who might have started out with tribelike intentions, but once they took Balm in Gilead to New York, the actors scattered to film and television. So true. But here is my question: should we see this defection as having benefitted the theatre?

It is one thing to say: yes, I can understand how John, Gary and the gang made a strong personal career move by heading to LA and it sure is nice of them to come back to Chicago every once in a while to act or direct at the home theatre. And clearly they have a commitment to that institution, because they do keep coming back, and that's cool. And clearly Steppenwolf is OK with that.

But still: is the theatre better off because John, Gary and the gang devote most of their time and talent to the mass media? What amazing productions might they have created had they said no and kept working solely in live theatre?

Back in the day, Henry Ford said "what's good for Ford is good for America." Have we gotten to a point where we say, "What's good for film and television is good for the theatre?" or "What's good for the individual is good for the whole?" If you wink at the free agent nation, your tribe is doomed. It relies on an on-going relationship between artists and audience, and artists and each other.

My commitment on this blog is to the theatre, not to any old medium at all that uses people pretending to be other people as its foundation. When my show "The Tribe" begins...oh, wait...my show "The Tribe," which will take place in a theatre in Sioux Falls and not be filmed or broadcast... ahem... I will be looking for people whose sole interest is in live theatre.

Theatre is hard to do. It requires a lifetime to master it, to make a consistent superior contribution. It isn't something you just drop in on from time to time. Look at theatre history: Did Shakespeare do film and TV? Moliere? David Garrick? No sir! They were committed to theatre!

As I wrote in my comments: I look at this sort of like I look at people who are trying to get off drugs or alcohol -- if you're addicted, you can't just drink recreationally. The regional theatre movement originally had a sort of purity to it that might be called Puritan -- it defined itself in opposition to Broadway. But soon, at the first FACT meeting, for instance, there was the beginning of a rapprochement with the commercial theatre, and around then one of the Founding Mothers, Zelda Fichlander, took The Great White Hope to Broadway, and Irving Blau abandoned San Francisco and moved to Lincoln Center, and pretty soon, the Big Box theatres ended up being tryout houses for Broadway. That makes me real nervous about being too inclusive about all this. The values that inform tribe theatre are very, very different than those informing the freelance model, and thinking it is possible to move back and forth between them really undermines the tribe. Thinking that you can move back and forth between theatre and the mass media is even worse.

So I guess right now, I am trying to make the differences very, very clear, and not allow lines to blur too much. If I don't, pretty soon I'll be talking about how all regional theatres need is better marketing and then the whole thing is lost!

McCain says...

...that hope is a platitude.
That pretty much says it all.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

He Who Laughs Back (And Then)

Nick at Theatre for the Future has a great post called "Laughing Back" that describes a great real-life example of my "and then" idea in action. Imagine Sandy Marshall and Nick are both in your tribe, and everybody else has similar valuable skills that can be used to extend the economic life of the tribe. You'd be unbeatable!

The only place where I differ somewhat from Nick is in his expressed attitude toward those who make a living in the corporate world. I think if, instead of keeping your distance, you actually got to know these people, it wouldn't take long berfore you discovered that they have very similar desires to your own. Don't believe me? Read the introduction to Michael Lerner's excellent book The Politics of Meaning. Once you realize that the gulf between people is not as wide as we were led to believe, then you can start understanding how to communicate with them, and reanimate their deepest hopes.

Yeah, that's pretty Barack Obama, ain't it...

Buckminster Fuller is Right

Matt Freeman at On Theatre and Politics asks whether anyone disagrees with Mike Daisey. The comments seem to indicate that, while there are a few well-taken quibbles, most acknowledge the truth of Daisey's analysis. I'd like to rob Matt just a bit and copy below a long comment by LB, because placing it within the context of this blog might lead us to look at it from a different perspective. And I'd like to highlight in bold a few statements. LB writes:

I disagree slightly...

I have worked at the Seattle Rep (and some other theaters in Seattle and now in NYC) and while I agree that the model might be broken or at least maimed - I disagree with the fact that theaters are these huge monolithic institutions who have a consistently bloated staff. When I worked there, I often felt like I was doing the work of 2 people. I was trying my hardest, working VERY long days and I was doing it out of a labor of love - because I sure wasn't getting paid enough to live in an apartment without a roommate.

I feel that lately, there have been some real potshots taken at Seattle Rep and regional theaters in the blogger world. The idea that because they only get 40% or so of their income from ticket sales means that they would be just fine if they only got 15% of their money from tickets if they would just fire a few people on staff is laughable to me at a time that their grant funding is also being slashed.

I believe that ticket prices should be affordable (and I currently work for an organization that does that now - but it is because we have government mandated private funding to subzidize those ticket prices...we are LUCKY) but telling organizations that are already subsidizing your ticket by 60% that you don't understand why they cannot subsidize it by 85% indicates a lack of understanding about how many staff people it takes to obtain that subsidized income.

I believe we as a society have to commit to the arts. For the actors, for the institutions who commision and support the arts, and for the audiences. I agree with so many points of Mike Daisey's article, but I also think that we are blaming the soldier for the culture of war, or something like that.

I believe that to blame the current arts 'crisis' and the fact that actors are poor on the regional theaters that employ them is false blame. I do not think that regional theaters are against having actors eat and be employed. Daisey's direct quote is "The biggest reason the artists were removed was because it was best for the institution."
This statement is not 'untrue' - it was 'best' for the organization because they couldn't stay in business under the traditional repertory model. To put up plays and pay actors, they couldn't pay actors all the time. I bet they think that sucks too. A real 'devil's deal' as Daisey writes when mentioning Artistic Directors in his article.

Perhaps our energies would be well spent trying to come up with a system that we believe would work better instead of demonizing the regional theaters who are struggling to survive and continue to be able to hire actors and designers and playwrights. If we believe there is a better alternative for arts communities outside of New York City - what is it!?

Let's get people paid!
Indeed, let's! While I have read only Daisey's essay and heard a little of the recording of his performance, my impression is not that he is demonizing the people who work in the regional theatres, who as LB notes are working very hard for little money, but is rather pointing out that the way we are currently doing things is killing the goose that laid the golden egg of creativity. Those in the regional theatres aren't Snidely Whiplashes twisting their mustaches as they figure out a new way to screw artists, they are doing the best they can within a set of preconceptions that don't work. They are Big Box Theatres working within a Big Box mindset. The system is not going to be changed through tinkering around the edges. And as much as we would like it, LB's call for "society" to "commit to the arts" is a pipe dream that shifts the solution to someone else's shoulders than our own. I think LB is on a much better road when (s)he asks that we spend our energies trying to "come up with a system that we believe will work better." But then (s)he demands to know, if there is such a system, "what is it?," as if there is an Answer Out There that somebody is withholding. If only they would tell us what it is, then we'd be saved. "Throw me a rope to grab onto, help me to prove that I'm strong." There is no solution Out There -- we have to make it up together.

So I think it is time for theatre people, both those who work in the profession and those who work in academia, to join forces, stand on our own two feet, and figure this out for ourselves. Let's just assume that current government funding is all there will be -- there will be no sudden commitment from the nation to massive arts funding no matter who is in the White House or Congress. Let's just give up that pipe dream and deal with it. As much as we'd like to point to how much is spent by European nations on the arts, whining about it doesn't get anything done, and it makes us look like Junior begging for an increase in allowance because Skipper down the street gets more. So let's forget it. And let's assume that private foundations will indefinitely continue to reduce their commitment to the arts. Let's try to come up with an approach that can work within those realities, rather than staking our hopes on a dreamworld.

It seems to me that this requires us to rethink from the ground up. Peter Brook did this with the first two sentences of The Empty Space: "I can take any empty space and call it a stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged." Don't jump to conclusions -- I'm not suggesting this image as the end point, but the beginning. I am suggesting that Brook's ability to think back to the primal starting point for theatre is the way to jettison all the baggage of fifty years of the regional theatre movement, and all the TCG- and Ford Foundation-generated preconceptions about how a regional theatre "ought" to look and be operated, and to think afresh.

Let's say you are part of a group of people who want to do plays -- you don't have a space, you don't have any money, no costumes in storage, no shop to build in, nothing. Just a willingness to think afresh. Let's say you decide to accept the fact of your lack of resources rather than pretend it is otherwise, and further decide not to go into debt to produce the play. Now what? At this point, about 80% of theatre people will say, "Well, you get a second job and save up enough money to pay for that stuff." Which means that you probably will never do the show at all. But if you are committed to thinking about a New Way, this lack of money and space doesn't stop you. You're going to do a play anyway. So you decide to follow Nick's company's (New Leaf) example and create a play from the ground up so there aren't any royalties necessary. Since you don't have a space, and don't want to take the chance of going into debt to rent one, you decide to create your piece to be performed for a small audience gathered in the one space you have that is already paid for: your living room. Contemporary subject matter means you can all just wear your normal clothes, so no costume budget necessary. The play is site specific, so no set costs, but the designer in your tribe spends her time figuring out the best way to arrange what already exists in the apartment. You're able to set up twenty chairs in the living room, and because your apartment has an open floorplan and the kitchen can be seen from the living room, you set the play in the kitchen. Now you all go out and invite people to see the play, and you charge $2.50 a ticket, and you use half of that money to buy snacks to put out in the living room for your audience to nosh on. They can BYOB. You sell out for three performances, and thus net $75.00. Congratulations! You just cleared more profit than 70% of the straight plays on Broadway, and probably 100% of the plays in the regional theatres (when all the theatre's costs are taken into consideration).

But but but! That ain't theatre, you protest. Really? It's an empty space with somebody walking across it and somebody else watching. That's theatre, right? But it requires that we think like Brook from the ground up and let go of preconceptions. Now your group has $75 to seed the next show, and you can start right away if you want -- no need to wait to build up your cash reserves again. Since your $75 represents half of the income you made last time by selling out, you can do a really risky show, sell only ten tickets a night, provide snacks for the audience, and still break even. Or maybe the people who saw your show the first time enjoyed themselves, and so they are going to bring a friend to the next one. Cool! Now you can add another performance -- more snacks, more income.

Is this the model I'm proposing? Hell no! This still isn't paying anyone involved with the production, so they are subsidizing the show completely with their time -- not good. But this model does increase one thing that I think is critical: empowerment. The company members are in total control. No need to seek subsidy, no need to write grants, no need to pay exorbitant advertising costs and rental costs and royalties to Samuel French. Just pure creativity, and a very strong connection to the audience.

In some ways, this idea is a palate cleanser, like having a little sherbet between courses so that you can taste each part of the meal more fully. We need to clean our palate of all the preconceptions involving what theatre is and start from the empty space. Question every expenditure, every artistic "choice." Clean out the attic that holds all our old ideas and start with a clean slate. It is difficult -- it really, really is. But I am convinced that it is the only way to create a New Way. Buckminster Fuller is right (see sidebar).

Monday, February 11, 2008

Empowerment

OK, so I've written three posts to start off this journey toward a sustainable, geographically diverse theatre. I've asked you whether you can give up the dream of fame and fortune and focus primarily on the work as an end in itself; I've asked you to team up with a group of people who share a similar willingness to focus on the work and form a tribe; and I've asked you to consider an approach to the creation of theatre that incorporates additional work outside the theatre to supplement the income of the ensemble ("and then").

Those are big changes from the freelancer's life. Over the past two weekends, my wife and I have been attending a "bee school" where we are being trained as beekeepers. One of the things I've learned is that, when it somes to bees, the unit is the hive not the individual bee. Everyone is committed to the health of the hive, and each bee has his or her own job to contribute. There are many who will say this is impossible -- that we have become a "free agent nation" and it is every person for themself and to hell with everybody else. There was a point only a few years ago that I was enthralled by this idea -- I was reading The World Is Flat and Tom Peter's Re-Imagine and I was totally buzzed (pardon the bee pun) by not having to worry about cooperating with anyone else, and by riding my own particular form of genius to the top. Now -- not so much. Because while I think that sort of individualism is kind of a rush, I'm not convinced that the results are either valuable or healthy. I'm more interested in creating a community of people who collaborate to create something healthy and sustainable.

But what I experienced when I was on this individualistic high was a sense of empowerment. And I still think that is critical to all walks of life, and I think it is what we have lost to some extent as theatre artists. Oh, sure, we're all free agents hustling to win that next role or directing gig, and we'll fight tooth and nail to knock others out of the way to do so. But the structure of the business is based on disempowerment, and I think that is one thing that has to change. It is also the thing that links together the three things I have asked you to consider, which I listed above (commitment to art as an end in itself, commitment to an ensemble, and commitment to ancillary income sources). All of these are designed to make artists more independent of outsiders who would control their fate.

I know in a previous post I mentioned my distaste for A Chorus Line as being a musical advertisement for theatrical dysfunctionality. Now, when that cast album first came out, I about wore a groove in it playing it so often (yes, this was back in the day when you wore grooves in your albums -- ask your parents). I saw the show on Broadway, and I lived and died with each of the auditionee's heartfelt stories. But looking back, I see that this was SICK! *L* It was getting me used to being disempowered because I was in the theatre. One of the songs from that musical stands out in this regard: Music and the Mirror. Here are the lyrics, for those who haven't got them memorized:

Give me somebody to dance for,
Give me somebody to show.
Let me wake up in the morning to find
I have somewhere exciting to go.

To have something that I can believe in.
To have something to be.
Use me... Choose me.

God, I'm a dancer,
A dancer dances!

Give me somebody to dance with.
Give me a place to fit in.
Help me return to the world of the living
By showing me how to begin.

Play the music.
Give me the chance to come through.
All I ever needed was the music, and the mirror,
And the chance to dance for you.

Give me a job and you instantly get me involved.
If you give me a job,
Then the rest of the crap will get solved.
Put me to work,
You would think that by now I'm allowed.
I'll do you proud.

Throw me a rope to grab on to.
Help me to prove that I'm strong.
Give me the chance to look forward to sayin':
"Hey. listen, they're playing my song."

Play me the music.
Give me the chance to come through.
All I ever needed was the music, and the mirror,
And the chance to dance...

Play me the music,
Play me the music,
Play me the music.
Give me the chance to come through.
All I ever needed was the music, and the mirror,
And the chance to dance...
Hoo-boy, I'm having flashbacks. Let's give these lyrics a close look. First of all, the phrase "give me" appears ten times during the course of the song. Give me a chance, give me a job, give me an audience, give me place to fit in. Give me a life! (Setting aside the artistic use of repetition, this whole song is about begging and pleading for somebody else to let her be an artist. Please please please let me fulfill myself by allowing me to do your choreography. The disempowerment of this song becomes more obvious if you switch the art form. Imagine, say, a novelist pleading for paper and a pencil, or an artist begging for paint and canvas. Yes, those artists need others to publish their work, or to display it in a gallery, but they have complete power over the creation of the work. Not the freelancer -- she needs somebody else to let her create. Or so she thinks.

It gets worse. She needs somebody else to give her something she can believe in. Now, think about that for a second. Can you get any more passive than that? Having somebody else provide you with purpose and direction? Yes you can get worse, and she does: she asks to have a rope thrown to her so she can prove she is "strong." What? You throw a rope to someone who is dorwning, right? Isn't that the image? So how can you prove your strength when somebody else is holding you up? If you're strong, what do you need a rope for at all -- start swimming! Ultimately, she gives the whole game away when, in perhaps the saddest lines in the whole musical, she begs, "Use me, choose me." Use me.

If this were just an example of individual pathology, we could let it pass. But it is the way most theatre people are socialized to think. We think other people control the means of production, and we are so desperate to be "used" that darned if they don't do just that. They do theatre people a "favor" by letting them work for nothing -- this is called a "showcase," and theatre artists beg and claw for an opportunity to be chosen.

And this kind of thinking permeates the whole damn business. What is one of the major topics of conversation in the theatrosphere? The small amount of government subsidy. Give me give me give me. We spend half of our time with our hands out begging for other people to give us money. The government, foundations, businesses. Our regional theatres have seen an inordinate growth in those in administration, and what do most of them do? Beg for money in the form of grants.

And then we wonder why Average Joe thinks we are all a bunch of slackers who oughta suck it up and earn a living. Well, this is how we've been taught to earn a living! It's like we have all worked an apprenticeship in begging. The thought of actually controlling our own art is almost unheard of. A commenter on one of my previous posts complained that forming a company involved a completely different "skill set." Actually, what it requires is the desire to have control over your own artistic life, instead of relying on everyone else to give something to believe in, something to be, some place to fit in.

Being an artist means taking control of your development. The only way to do that is to control the means of production and give up this pathetic passivity, this reliance on Big Daddy to throw you a rope and save your cookies. And the irony is that I don't think there is anyone who does want to be able to do that -- who doesn't have an idea of what kind of work makes them happy, what kind of work inspires their best creativity, what kind of work allows them to grow.

Part of being an adult is agency -- making our own independent choices. This blog seeks to develop a model of doing theatre that empowers artists so that hard work and creativity trumps dumb luck and ass-kissing.