Friday, January 28, 2011

Arts Beyond the Margin

It seems to me that a thread that is running through many of the discussions reflects an underlying longing for artists to be integrated into a community, whether it is the community of theatre artists where they are working or the larger community that will attend the production. There are discussions about the extent to which people can be honest with each other, or the levels of transparency within an institution; there are discussions of the little things that can be done to make people feel valued, like having the AD pick a visiting artist up at the airport, or having child care available. But what all of these suggestions and discussions are trying to make up for is the fact that most of our institutions are made up of artists brought in for a short time to do specific productions. What artists want, in reality, is to feel the sense of trust and honesty that comes from being in relationship over time, and that just can't be created through a few gestures, as kind and generous as they are. You can't fake trust, you can't microwave relationship. Speed dating doesn't create a deep connection.


As I expected, I ended up sitting at the center table for the discussion of diversity, representing geographical diversity. When we talk about, say, racial or ethnic diversity, we often talk about resisting marginalization, but being on the margin is to still be on the page. You can write in the margins. Geographical diversity, it seems to me, is beyond marginalization, off the page and scratching words into the tabletop or something. It's one thing to tell Rocco Landesman that instead of centralizing grants in the bigger theatres we need to expand our markets into underserved areas -- selling more tickets is something everybody can get behind. But it's something else entirely to suggest that the stories we tell ought to be those of the regions where we live. This totally goes against our current paradigm and suggests that perhaps reaching more and more people throughout the nation might not be as valuable as helping a specific community to fall in love with itself.

I listened quietly through most of the discussion, until near the end when David Dower prompted me to speak. What came out, I'm embarrassed to say, was pretty bombastic. It was something about the homogenization of storytelling due to the influence of the mass media, and that homogenization taking the form of stories about the urban experience to the exclusion of the rural (e.g., there is no CSI: Murphy, NC) and so forth, and ended with some wildly generalized statement about not finding portrayals of the rural experience in New York, at least not respectful ones. David responded that I needed to read Food from Trash and Say Grace, and Lisa Kron suggested the work of Ain Gordon and Sam Hunter. Perhaps so.

But the fact is that I don't really care in the least whether plays about rural themes appear on the NYC stage; what I want are plays about rural themes to be written by people who live in rural areas and produced in those areas, and I want the artists who are involved in those productions to be satisfied to have touched rural people without aspiring to Big City Recognition. And in our culture, that's just crazy talk.

That's where the beyond-marginalization comes in, because when all is said and done, my beef is with American culture as a whole, and ultimately I want out of it to whatever extent is possible short of becoming a survivalist. And that removes me from the discussions that are going on, which seek a way to more effectively join that culture. I don't like the idea of artist-specialists who create works of art and sell them to people. I think creativity should be democratic, an exchange of insights, viewpoints and stories based on authenticity rather than virtuosity. I don't think "excellence" resides in a work of art, but rather in its impact -- that quality and excellence is co-created at the intersection of the storyteller, the story, and the listener, and that that type of interactive excellence doesn't require virtuosity as much as connection. I'm looking for ways to create what my friend Patrick Overton of the Front Porch Institute calls the "poetry of place," art that enhances our sense of connection to where we make our lives.


And that's what The Provenance of Beauty: A South Bronx Travelogue created by Melanie Joseph and Claudia Rankine, which I saw tonight, is about. Oh, sure, the formal element of a play originally performed on a moving bus rolling through the South Bronx is what will attract attention, but the fact is that the most important thing the play does is to en hance one's sense of the South Bronx as a place, a landscape with a dynamic present that is shot through with history. It is to the South Bronx what a Wendell Berry story is to Port William, KY -- perhaps with a lot less specificity about individual people, and a lot more poetic abstraction, but still an engagement with the details of a landscape. It's not a landscape that I personally find attractive, but if I lived in the South Bronx such a play might encourage me to see the triumphs and struggles etched within the buildings and parks of my neighborhood. It might help me move from being simply a resident to being a member of the community, a citizen.


Paul Mullin said...


Nice to read your work again.

NewsWrights UNited is having some success out in Seattle with using the Living Newspaper as a way to create theatre for, by and about Pacific Northwesters.

It's been tough to let go of being a "national playwright", but I do find, the more I let go, the happier and more productive I am.


Scott Walters said...

Paul -- Great to hear from you! Very cool project you're working on! I hope you'll keep me informed.