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.

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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.

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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.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

On Rocco Landesman and Muhammad Yunus

After the first day at the Arena Stage's New Play Development Program convening "From Scarcity to Abundance," I have come to the conclusion that I have stayed away too long from writing on Theatre Ideas (and also on Rocking the Cradle as well). After a few comments, it became very clear to me that if I am known at all it is for writing here, and as busy as I have become, it is something I need to make time for.

And so....

The convening was opened by an address and Q & A session with Rocco Landesman. As anyone who has read this blog knows, his Peoria comment early in his tenure rubbed me the wrong way, as did a few other things. However, I must admit that I like his style -- you don't have to wonder what he really thinks about an issue, and he isn't afraid to provoke. Today was no different.

If you follow the Twitter discussion at #newplay, you'll see that several people took umbrage at his suggestion that if theatres were deer we'd have to shoot much of the herd. Indeed, Trisha Mead called them "fighting words." Landesman's conclusion follows directly and logically from a thought process that goes something like this: 1) it is appalling that theatre artists can't make a livable wage in the theatre (true); 2) there has been an explosion of arts organizations, and so supply exceeds demand (partially true); 3) the NEA has limited funds (true); conclusion: the NEA needs to give bigger grants to fewer theatres and let the other theatres go away. Call the cops!

Most people in the room wondered why we can't increase demand. Others objected to the likelihood that Rocco would give those larger grants to the larger, established theatres. 

I found myself reminded of Nobel Prize Winner Muhammad Yunus, whose practice of micro-lending has helped so many people in Bangladesh. He realized that the desperately poor were struggling for want of a few dollars startup cash, and he devised a way to get that money into their hands in such a way that it led to a sustainable business. As Yunus realized, a very small amount of money can have enormous positive effects. (Sidenote: I highly recommend Yunus' latest book Building Social Business, which can make you start thinking about a new business model for the arts.)

In order to help, say, the Guthrie or Steppenwolf and have a serious impact, the NEA would have to give an enormous amount of money, and so would have to reduce the number of grants it made. To have the same impact on, say, the Rude Mechanicals, the investment would be much less, leaving money left over to have another major impact on, say, Stage North in Washburn WI. Furthermore, such grants would actually lead to increasing demand, because while it may be that the audiences in the theatre capitals of the US are tapped out due to the sheer number of theatres making their home there, that is not the case in Washburn or other small communities. As a businessman, Landesman ought to know that one needs to look for underserved markets rather than try to expand mature ones.

But doing so would require the development of a democratic approach to the arts, rather than a careerist approach based on prestige. Like Republicans who seem to worry most about those who already possess the most, such a concern for helping the richest established theatres seems misplaced.

I encourage a national experiment in theatrical micro-credit.

Monday, January 24, 2011