Saturday, June 14, 2008

Controversy at NPAC

I originally posted this at the ArtsJournal.com NPAC blog as one of my liveblogging contributions:

Today [Friday] was a very different day at NPAC, for me anyway. Yesterday was crammed from 8:00 am until 11:00 pm with discussions, speeches, sessions, and stimulating conversations. Today there seemed to be fewer things going on, and I found myself more inclined to buy books in the exhibit hall -- a LOT of books. After three days at this conference, I have come to the conclusion, as a teacher, that I must work harder to introduce my students to the many ideas and studies about the arts that are being published. Whether the Wallace Foundation, or the NEA, or WolfBrown, or any number of other sources of ideas that contextualize, explain, and reveal the larger issues that permeate our artistic landscape, there are too many opportunities for artists to take control of their artistic lives. Why does the academy focus almost exclusively on "skill development" and leave to chance the development of a worldview, an aesthetic philosophy, a socio-political understanding of the place of the arts, and a sense of the economic life of our nation? By doing so, we disempower artists who find themselves at the mercy of those with a broader perspective. As a result, the art suffers as well as the artist, both of which fail to acquire depth and profundity. It must be changed.

A disturbing controversy arose at today's keynote following the truly inspiring conversations with Jose Antonio Abreu and Germaine Acogny. Both of these brilliant artists illustrate the point that I was trying to make above: they have a strong sense of their art form, its place within the world, and its effects on society and the artist. They were thoughtful and passionate, and as a result they transformed those who worked with them. After they were finished, and after we had given them an enthusiastic standing ovation, we were offered a performance by the Colorado Children's Chorale Tour Choir, a group of young singers who sang with energy and innocence. As the strains of their rendition of "America, the Beautiful" faded away, an NPAC participant approached the podium as a large number of audience members stood up holding signs that read "Where is Madhusree Dutta?" The woman at the microphone explained that Dutta was supposed to be the third panelist, but she had politely declined to attend when she was told she must edit out two pieces of her introductory film, pieces that condemned George Bush and the Iraq War. The word "censorship" was uttered, and the image of the NEA 4 raised, and a plea for solidarity among artists made. The source of the request for the de-politicizing editing was left rather vague -- was it American Express, the NPAC organizers, the US government? Whoever it was, and whatever the reason, what is disturbing is the idea that politics cannot be discussed in this setting, and criticism cannot be expressed, and all in the name of what? Of avoiding controversy in order to forge a fragile sense of unity and togetherness among the attendees? It was clear that the person who made the announcement was being careful not to be "incendiary," as if we were all children who were not to be worked up lest we become overwrought and unruly. But what is puzzling is that the political content was unexpected -- how could you look at Dutta's work and not expect political content?

The very basis of this conference is political: Taking Action Together. And so to exclude the political expression of someone who stood as a symbol of taking action together seems lacking in self-reflection, if not hypocritical. If this is where we have come to in this final year of the Bush Administration, where self-censorship is the order of the day, then as artists we should abandon our idea of "taking action together," because we have not thought deeply, have not developed courage, and have not understood our role in society.

Perhaps if I change my approach to teaching and introduce my students to the broad thinking that is this conference at its best, then iat future conferences they will be able to listen without fear to the political, religious, or philosophical expression of those who have strong feelings and commitments without fretting about the effects of controversy. Perhaps then we will have become a mature group of artists who have fully embraced our own power.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Mike Daisey's On My Mind

With Sunday's post-show panel at How Theatre Failed America coming up fast (now with free beer!), I am finding interesting stuff on Mike's website, including a link to an article about a 4-actor resident company being formed by Portland's Artists Repertory Theater. A step in the right direction, of course, and kudos to them. Mike links to an article in the Portland Mercury that quotes Daisy on importing actors, and then makes an outstanding leap:

The outsourcing conversation feels particularly relevant on the heels of the Drammys. Most of the awards given to Portland Center Stage went to people who were brought in from elsewhere, which kind of strikes me as complete bullshit. It’s no commentary on the quality of the work PCS was honored for—I sure can’t argue with the Outstanding Production nod to Twelfth Night, for example—but if you’re going to insist that these are “local” theater awards and not allow any touring productions or non-locally produced shows to compete, where’s the logic in then recognizing what is essentially touring talent, brought in from New York to work on a single project?


Brava, Allison Hallett. A tour is a tour, and most productions are the regional theatres are not regional, but rather limited run touring shows. And when does the theatre community that cares about our regional movement, the movement we fought so hard to bring to life, stand up and say enough, this sells out every value that was the foundation of this movement, and it violates the regional theatre's raison d'etre. We can do better. We must do better. And Mike Daisey, God bless him, has forced the conversation to take place (although man there was a desire at NPAC to skip the outrage and focus on the positive steps that have occurred -- the moderator of the discussion kept steeringf us clear of any sense of outrage to focus instead on happy talk).

This Blog Is Open for Business

After a coupole weeks to collect my thoughts and restore a sense of emotional balance, I am ready to start posting here again.

I am currently at the National Performing Arts Convention in Denver, which has been a real eye-opener on many levels. The level of thought here is high, and the longer I am here the more convinced I become that theatre education needs to raise expectations for students' engagement with the ideas and data about theatre. The focus of most theatre departments is so relentless on skills almost to the exclusion of engagement with the big questions and the big discoveries that inform our art. When we talk about challenging young people, we tend to focus on having them read more challenging plays, for instance, which is important but also, like the skills-based training, insular.

Young people need to engage the challenges and ideas of their time, and of times gone by that can be mined. Theory is not irrelevant, nor are the studies of the Wallace Foundation or the NEA, for instance. The latter present data and ideas that can literally help young artists to survive and thrive. The WolfBrown study dismissed by Jason Grote on the ArtsJournal.com blog preceding the NPAC is an example of how creative artists diminish their ability to survive by ignoring information that can make them more successful, not in the creation of their art, but in the presenting of their art. The studies by the Wallace Foundation make only the faintest impact on practioners, and yet they are filled with empowering ideas and data.

But what I have learned here at NPAC is that those who wield power in the theatre -- the administrators, the board members, the foundation staff -- do read these studies, do recognize the value of the data and the ideas, and do put them into action -- and that is how they maintain their power. They think more broadly about the art form. The result of lack of knowledge is a diminished power for artists, who give over control of their art to those who will take the time to study, to learn, to think. Mike Daisey, who brilliantly performed How Theatre Failed America here in front of the assembled administrators, rightly condemns the low status of actors on the regional theatre scene, but there is also truth to the idea that their status is low because they have given away their power by not being knowledgeable about broader issues than the latest theatre gossip, and not being willing to educate themselves on the issues and speak their mind together to demand change. They fear repercussions, yes, but they also avoid engaging anything but the most insular issues.

We in higher education must do something to change this know-nothing orientation. Instead of giving semester-long classes in auditioning, we need to empower our actors to take control of their art form, develop entrepreneurial skills, understand the context of their art form within the larger culture and economy, and become powerful, engaged artists who will not allow themselves to be manipulated and exploited.

The only way that things change is if artist become empowered, and they only become empowered if their are educated. Paulo Friere's classic Pedagogy of the Oppressed should become required reading for all theatre people so that they can understand what is at stake in developing their critical consciousness.

I have many other things to write about what I have learned at NPAC, but I must head in to the conference. Please pass the word that Theatre Ideas is back in business.