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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