Tom Loughlin Hits The NailOver 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.
CareerismMost 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 SnowA 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, BuckminsterThis 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 AboutThe 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.