Back on April 1st, I posted that I had received an NEA grant for my Less Than 100k Project. At the time, several of my readers suspected an April Fool's prank, and they were likely strengthened in this opinion from the post disappearing from my blog a few days later. Actually, what I had discovered was that I was not supposed to announce anything until there was an official press release by the NEA on April 30th -- today. Here is the official NEA release and the list of theatre awards. I am very honored to have been even considered for this, much less to have actually received it. It is my hope that this funding will lead to the creation of many theatres in small and rural communities across America, who are underserved by the mainstream theatre.
While there seem to be quite a few community-agnostics and -atheists among the theatre blogging community, and many more who feel as if the connection between artists and their community should be weak or nonexistent, I have great belief in the power of the arts to change lives, to grow and support communities, and to foster a better world. However, I think that that power comes from not only being an arts consumer, or even primarily from being one, but from being a participant in the arts as well. That's why the focus of the Less Than 100k will be on artists and community together.
I look for inspiration to people and places like LaMoine MacLaughlin at the Northern Lake Center for the Arts in Amery WI, Caryn Leake with CHOAS in Ottawa IL, Patrick Overton at the Front Porch Project in New Richmond WI, the Ukiah Players in Ukiah CA, Samuel Mockbee and the Rural Studio in Hale County AL, "Swamp Gravy" in Colquitt GA, the Community Arts Network that gathers so much information about community arts and works out of a trailer in NC, and so many, many other places where people give of their time and their creativity to create gifts for members of their community, and help others to share their own stories and creativity.
It is only in a post-Kantian "art-is-by-definition-useless" world, a world where art has become a product to be sold like deoderant rather than an experience and a means of connection, that such work is dismissed as "social work." But any acquaintance with the writing of Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Robert Gard, Percy MacKaye, Augusto Boal, Lyle Estill, or David Diamond reveals a rich, largely untapped source of rich creativity and beautiful sharing.
In the post I made earlier today that included the TED presentation by Elizabeth Gilbert, Gilbert argues that this belief in an internalized "genius" possessed within individuals leads to illness for artists. I would argue that it also leads to illness for communities as well. Once only "special people" make art, the underground spring of creativity that supports humanity begins to dry up, and the result is not thirst but rather resentment at those who have diverted the spring to their own purposes. The deep suspicion and even hostility toward artists often expressed by "non-artists" reflects this unconscious resentment that the creative wellspring has become privatized, hoarded by the specially-trained "Creative Class."
It is necessary for regular folks to relearn how to sing, to tell stories, to play instruments, to paint murals, to carve statues -- in short, to contribute their creative energy to each other, instead of (or at least in addition to) relying exclusively on those who devote a greater amount of time and attention to those pursuits. More than anything, this has been the outcome of television and radio, who created the sense that art should be passively consumed rather than created. The days of telling stories or singing with a guitar have been replaced by Netflix and cable television. Like the escaped contents of Pandora's box, these evils have been relased into the world and connot be sealed up again. But at the bottom of Pandora's box one thing remained: Hope. Hope, like Community a much-scorned gift in this cynical world, has been dismissed by many. But it is from Hope that the Future emerges; and it is through Community that the Past is reclaimed.
As the gardener knows, his plants come from a combination of good soil, the efforts of the gardener, and gifts from Nature. Like the daemon or the Roman genius mention in Elizabeth Gilbert's talk, the success of the garden is only partly under the control of the gardener. One must rely on the gifts of Nature, and on the remnants of the past that lie within the rich soil.
My intention is to do my part to enrich the soil and plant some seeds. I don't know whether anything will grow, but I will do my part out of a faith in the value of the process, the goodness of the soil, and the benevolence of the Communal Spirit.