Friday, January 01, 2010

A New Year's Realization

Tom Loughlin Hits The Nail
Over the past month, throughout the conversation about diversity, about class, about quality, I have avoided a true consideration of the sentiments Tom Loughlin expressed in his December 23rd post "Far From the Madding Crowd" and December 24th post "What's All the Fuss About?"Having been invited into the regional theatre discussion by the intelligent and thoughtful David Dower at Arena Stage, and having been stimulated by a few days of intriguing give-and-take between engaged theatre artists, I found myself trying to fix what is wrong with the so-called American theatre, and in the process I lost track of my own commitments and beliefs, most precisely characterized by the Buckminster Fuller quotation printed in my sidebar that serves as the guiding principle for this blog: "You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete."

Tom reminded me of it when he refused to be drawn into the diversity discussion, taking a longer view when he wrote "the debate itself is another manifestation of the worsening entropic nature of theatre itself at this point in time. According to social entropy theory, much of any organization’s energy and time is spent preventing an organization from descending into a state of chaos. As an organism or organization corrodes or decays, more and more time and energy is needed to maintain the status quo, and less and less energy is actually spent producing anything of use or value. Ultimately, the decaying state of the organization is simply too far gone for any corrective action to be worthwhile or effective, and the organization goes into a state of chaos, or death." He's right. And I had been contributing more and more time and energy to maintain the status quo.

Most of the discussion of diversity was not about how telling the stories of a variety people might increase a sense of connectedness within the community, might create bridging social capital between groups, might enhance meaning in peoples' lives. What it was about was careers -- how artists of color, female artists, gay artists, any artists at all might find more opportunities to get their work produced and noticed. All it takes is a little skimming through the TDF book Outrageous Fortunes to see that the primary concern playwrights have is "making the jump" to larger institutions, i.e., "advancing" their careers.

Once again, it is Tom who puts this into perspective with his New Year's Day post "Changing Lives": "I notice this a lot in the younger generation. My students are constantly concerned with the career aspects of their training, and the surveys I’ve seen of undergraduate and graduate theatre students again and again indicate that they always want more courses that concentrate on career-building, not on the development of their talent. They want workshops that center on how to audition better, or how to market themselves better. They want agents to come see their work and make comments. They want to know what’s the best city to move to. In short, they want to be given as clear a pathway as possible that will lead to a successful career. They seem little concerned with changing people’s lives with their art." I notice the same thing (although perhaps a little less so in a liberal arts program such as mine), and like Tom I know this isn't their fault -- it is what they have been taught to be concerned with by their teachers and the culture. They are thinking only in terms of finding a place in the current paradigm. So to encounter it in a discussion about diversity, or class, or quality isn't all that surprising.

A Dream of Spinning Tires in the Snow
A couple nights ago, I had a dream. I don't usually have memorable dreams, and when I do remember, they are pretty pedestrian. But this one was different. I dreamt I was in my car driving up a very long and very steep driveway to the parking lot of an Office Depot store. The car, which for some reason I knew was an older Honda Civic, really had to work hard getting up to the top. When I finally got up there, I found that there had been a massive snow storm, and the parking lot was unplowed and had a 7 ft drift at the very top of the driveway, and there were a bunch of cars that had tried to break through the drift who were stuck, spinning their wheels ineffectively. I stopped my car and got out to better see the situation: there were no cars in the parking lot, only stuck in the drift, and in the distance the Office Depot was dark and empty. I turned around just in time to see my Civic start to roll back down the driveway. I tried to run after it, but it gained momentum as I watched it roll out into traffic and disappear into the city streets. I spent the rest of the dream trying to find the car -- I never did.

When I woke up, I knew this dream was about my own career, but I also see that it is about the theatre scene in general. Everyone is working hard to get to the top, where they encounter an empty destination and a bunch of people stuck and spinning their wheels. Nobody is questioning the worth of the quest to get to the top, nor are they thinking about ways to get unstuck. They just continue to spin their wheels in the same way they always have.

Refocusing: Thanks, Buckminster
This morning, I asked myself why I was spending so much of my time trying to address issues like diversity, class, and quality when the underlying values and the structure that supports them are so debased that it will corrupt any attempts to make it better. As long as people think art is a commodity to be sold, that stories are products to be copyrighted and horded, that creative expression is something that ought to be done by specialists, that the arts are a career -- as long as these are the values, then little of importance will change in the arts, and they will continue their downward spiral into irrelevance that, once again, Tom outlined in "What's All the Fuss About?" We have created this system ourselves, as Mike Daisey pointed out in How Theatre Failed America, and as long as we are committed to it, the existing reality will remain the same.

CRADLE(arts) represents my attempt to disconnect from a system I believe is broken. And while I, like everyone, am prone to be flattered when I am invited into the room to share my ideas with members of the power structure, I have to be wary about being co-opted, about shifting my focus away from creating a new reality toward fixing the unfixable current reality.

Perhaps it is the reality of being in our fifties, or perhaps it is that we are both college professors and it takes a toll on our psyche to educate young people, year after year, to join a system we have come to see as soul deadening and lacking in value, but Tom and I have a viewpoint that is very different from most of the theatrosphere, and from most of the generation that was sitting in a circle at the Arena Stage convening. I can't drive into the snow drift and spin my wheels -- I need to create a different route.

What I Care About
The fact is that I don't give a damn about what is happening in the so-called American Theatre, commercial or non-profit. I don't care whether Sarah Ruhl writes good plays or not, or whether the Broadway audience is 96.5% white, or whether using Facebook or Twitter will help market a show. I care about bringing back a shared sense of creativity to our society; I care about increasing the sense of connection between people; I care about helping people find meaning in their lives and relationships, and in helping them to disconnect from the soul-deadening materialism and individualism that makes the US one of the least happy countries in the world.

It's not that I scorn what others care about, it's just that I can't join that conversation. It takes a lot of reading, a lot of thought, to create a new reality, in the same way that it takes a lot of time and thought to work within the current reality. I don't have the time to do both -- I have to choose. And I choose a new reality.


99 said...

Good call, sir. I just finished reading Outrageous Fortune and I'm actually feeling much the same way. There are too many things wrong with the current model, too many opposing agendas and entrenched interests and much of it is blocking good work from being done. Let's try to focus some energy on the work.

Don Hall said...

About time you guys finally saw the light.

Amy Miller said...

An incredible New Year's realization!!! And on that note... I am incredibly excited to share with all of you The Transcendence Theatre Company's massive effort to stop the spinning tires in the snow for the theatre world at large. It's been over 2 years in the making and our project will be shared with the world on January 11, 2010. It is TIME for change!!!! This decade is going to be legendary. Stay tuned!!!!

devilvet said...

I like your direction here. I only hope that you hold fast, and refuse to be pulled into angry 'us' vs 'them' sort of exchanges. This sort of intent, motivation, etc... is something everyone can build upon.

Here's to you achieving what you set out in this post in a very basic way.

Anonymous said...

Interesting discovery. In fact, a truly important, personal discovery. Knowing what you want to do, and why you want to do it, and then keeping that as a guiding principle in all you's a like a good Clurman analysis. Remember this discovery and use it as your guide in all the decisions you make in 2010.

David Dower said...

Happy New Year, Scott!

I, too, pull on the work of Buckminster Fuller to guide my own efforts. All of this, to me, is a question of applying Design Science principles to the endeavor of theater in America. We are currently snatching scarcity from the jaws of abundance, and until we have reformed the system you speak of into something more rational and productive, we are certainly spinning our wheels.

I come at it from a different place in Fuller's work, though-- from his epitaph. His enduring sense of himself is engraved there: "Call Me Trimtab".

I spent many years intentionally disconnected from the system in which I now work. And for me, personally, those were rewarding years filled with growth and artmaking and direct impact on a definable community. When I entered the Home Depot you describe in your dream, back in 2006, it was with real trepidation but also with the direct intention of serving as a trimtab on the status quo you're speaking of. And I keep at it.

A thing I have noticed in the diversity discussions online, as distinct from the conversation in the room, is that they tend to be in a voice of broad generalization about how things should or shouldn't be done. But I think you were on it during the actual convening with your talk about the rainforest vs. the orchard. The rainforest needs the efforts of people like you and 99 and Oskar Eustis and Shishir Kurup and Young Jean Lee and Kris Diaz and Cathy Randel and Roberta Levitow and Todd London and Travis Bedard, and, and... Each at work with integrity and intention on whatever their contribution to the whole ecology is. Perhaps your work will serve as a trimtab for the presence and role of rural arts in that ecology. Perhaps Tom's will point toward a more rational and authentic contribution from undergraduate training programs. Perhaps Shishir's work will break open a new path to relevance around the idea of diversity in theater as a matter of National Security. Perhaps Claudia Alick's time in a wheelchair will teach the field something progressive about accessibility.

I am glad you are at work on that which is most powerfully important to you. I will continue to follow your progress with genuine anticipation. I hope you won't draw an arbitrary line between that work and the "system" . It's all one interdependent ecology, and it's in the moments of their intersection that we get the most potential for synergy as Fuller defined it: "the behavior of whole systems unpredicted by the behavior of their separate parts". That synergy has the greatest potential of positive change when the parts are sufficiently diverse to fully represent the whole system.

The Home Depot on the hill is one possible destination in the city of your dreams. Your car went sliding off into some other part of that city, but wherever you find it, it'll still be a vital part of that city's overall health. And when we pass each other on the sidewalk or at the barber, we'll stop and chat. And we'll each take something from that back to the work we do.

Here's to you and all you do and may we meet again in 2010.

Dennis Baker said...

I don't think it was a coincidence that I was reading your post with a Matrix marathon running on in the background. Thanks, again, for the reminder.

Being disconnected to the mainstream theater system this past 8 months or so, has helped in my questioning of its validity and purpose.

Thanks for keeping the light on the path.

Mike Daisey said...

What a fantastic response, David--I really found it moving and clear-sighted.

Hope to see you when I'm in DC for the next month.

RLewis said...

How heartening. And made even better by the agreement of the commenters.

Mother of Invention Acting School said...


I know of a few directors who work in the system and do fine work, but they are the rare exception. I determined long ago that that route wouldn't be mine. Lighting out for the territory is where it's at for me. I teach acting privately, and that is a significant source of meaning and subsistence for me. I want to expand that to producing my own work. I my work in existing institutions again, but it's nothing I will hang my happiness on.