Sunday, January 17, 2010

On the Meaning of What We Do (A Response to Tom Loughlin)

In a post entitled "Trivial Pursuit" over at A Poor Player, Tom Loughlin is examining the value of what he does as a theatre professor in light of the events in Haiti, the recent spate of bleak statistics regarding American's lack of interest in the theatre, and the 1957 Academy Award (tm) winning film The Bridge on the River Kwai. It is an excellent self-examination, one that would benefit more theatre artists to undertake; indeed, one that would benefit all people to undertake. (And, truth be told, one that most all of us do when we get to be people of "a certain age." Ahem.)

Anyway, since Tom has put his thoughts out in public, instead of (or in addition to) brooding over them in the privacy of one's own soul, I'd like to respond with my own thoughts, focusing specifically on these sentences:
When you stack up the general public’s statistical disinterest in theatre against the general economic condition of the art and the artists themselves, the rational mind has to question why anyone would continue to pursue such a statistically trivial career. Or worse – why anyone would ever educate or train someone to pursue this career. You can choose to take the high road and produce aesthetic arguments supporting such a choice, but only in a first-world country where basic needs are by and large taken care of can this argument actually take place. There are many places in the world where no one is arguing about how many plays or whose plays get produced every year. You own career, stacked up against these statistics, makes for a sober reckoning.
I am going to try to avoid justifications like the one I responded to during yesterday's Arena Stage discussion with African-American playwrights: "The beat of theatre is truth. We are in the art of truth..." As inspiring as such sentiments can be (and God knows in the climate that has been described for the arts, we can use all the inspiration we can get), the fact is that the beat of theatre is also lies and fantasies and fears.Theatre is a form, a genre, a structure that can be filled with whatever fits. Isaac objected to my admittedly acerbic retort "We theatre people gotta stop with self-aggrandizing cliches. Srsly" by saying that "I don't think it's aggrandizing to have lofty goals for your work's thematic content." But there is a difference between one's individual goals and claims for the theatre in general.

So what contribution does an artist, or someone who teaches young people to be artists, make to the world that has any significance at all? Wouldn't a month working on relief teams in Haiti outweigh a career teaching young people how to scan Shakespeare?

My initial response, which I'll elaborate more fully, is: Those relief workers in Haiti, like people who perform any number of good deeds and make heroic contributions, became those people because of the arts.

Our society is built on stories. We communicate our values, our ways of interacting, our aspirations according to the stories we tell each other over generations. The idea that there is value in helping others who are in dire need, for instance, which underlies the Haitian relief effort, is passed on from generation to generation by the stories we tell that reinforce that value. Without that story, or with a more dominant counter-story, such admirable behavior would likely be scarce.

Most of these stories are told by individuals, and in the overall scheme of things, they are probably the most important. But these individual stories are reinforced and structured by myths, and these myths are transformed into works of art. Such myths have been examined by Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, and many others. The Nobel winning biologist E. O. Wilson, in his book Consilience, talks about the archetypal stories that follow what he calls the "epigenetic rules" of human existence, of which there are a couple dozen.

Religion is just such a story, and it is why religion is so powerful. Every week, or every day, the stories are told over and over to remind us, at the structural level, about what we value. Taking a broad view, for instance, the New Testament tells the story of the replacement (or at least supplementing) of a vengeful God-the-Father by a compassionate God-the-Son (Pat Robertson might want to review that particular idea), who is then killed by those who support the status quo. However, despite the killing of Jesus, the ideas are carried forward more powerfully. Death is not the end of goodness.

The latter part of the story is an oft-told story that gives courage to those who face danger. We see it again, for instance, in the final confrontation between Obi-Wan and Darth Vader in Star Wars: A New Hope: "You can't win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine. " It is the underlying myth of Pay It Forward.

There are many, many more examples. The point is that people's actions are built on these stories. As Stephen Sondheim says in Into the Woods:
Careful the things you say,
Children will listen.
Careful the things you do,
Children will see.
And learn.

Children may not obey,
Buit children will listen.
Children will look to you
For which way to turn,
To learn what to be.

Careful before you say,
"Listen to me."
Children will listen.
And not just children. We all listen.

This is where the power of the arts intersects with the means of production. When we turned our storytelling responsibilities over to corporations in the marketplace, we lost control of the very bedrock of our society. When parents don't tell stories to their children, but instead allow Disney to do it, the stories start to change. It isn't that Disney isn't basing their stories on the same archetypes, but rather that their focus is less on the effect of the stories than their saleability.

When we teach young people to be artists, part of what we need to be teaching them is a conscousness of their responsibility to their society, their community. This is why we need to stop teaching the Myth of Fame, the Cinderella Myth, as the primary myth of the arts, or the Myth of Self, the Myth of Individual Vision, and replace it with a myth of service, of sacrifice, and of place.

When we teach not only skills (skills are still crucial) but also values, and when those values reflect the importance of story to the healthy and rich functioning of a community, a society, and a world rather than the skills and importance of individual careers, then we are making a contribution to our world that can stand up against the actions of relief workers in Haiti. And my feeling, which is just an intuition, is that if we reached a tipping point where such values were becoming common, then I think the bleak statistics will begin to turn around as well, and the system would change. It all starts with the stories we tell our young about values and purpose.


Ann Sachs said...

Can't believe I just read your blog for the first time and you've been blogging since 2005. Nevertheless...

Thank you for sharing this oh-so-necessary perspective! In my opinion, now is the opportune time to re-claim our stories with a vengeance, to re-establish our personal values grounded in PLACE, because our country is (at last) disillusioned with corporate America.

I share your optimism that the bleak statistics will begin to turn as soon as our authentic stories - not the marketplace version of our stories - are launched, and LAND in the the world.

Then we will not have to "stand up against the actions of relief workers in Haiti..." We WILL BE Haiti.

miss liss said...

Thank you for this. I had just watched the news and wondered to myself if I'm a selfish person to want to be a performer/entertainer rather than a rescue worker.

Cole Matson said...

Amen, amen, amen.