Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Ascendance, Descendence, Reverence, and New Beginnings

In an essay entitled "The Deep Voice" in his book Rebuilding the Front Porch of America (a book that I recommend everyone in the arts read), Patrick Overton talks about the "ascendant" and "descendent" functions of the arts, both of which are crucial polarities forever linked. The ascendant "reveals what isn't but could be," and the descendent "reveals what is but shouldn't be."

This blog has focused on the descendent function. For seven years, I have almost relentlessly focused on the problems with our current theatrical system.
  • I talked about bare employment facts: that 87% of Actors Equity members last year made less in the theatre than did someone flipping burgers at minimum wage (i.e., less than $15,000), and that 58.3% didn't make a dime. Things are no better for playwrights -- the 250 working playwrights who were interviewed for Todd London's book Outrageous Fortune that included people like Albee, Dietz, and Congdon averaged $4500 annual income from theatrical production. And a presentation given at TCG notes the situation for designers and directors is dismal as well.
  • I wrote an article on the absurdities of our casting and educational system entitled "The Wal-Marting of the American Theatre" that ran in Huffington Post and garnered over 4000 Facebook "likes" and was shared there over 1100 times. Indeed, it became the subject for a WeeklyHowl sponsored by HowlRound.com.
  • I focused on the funding inequities exposed by Holly Sidford's report Fusing Arts, Culture, and Social Responsibility, which showed that the 2% of nonprofit arts organizations with annual budgets over $5 million received 55% of the foundation money. And I discussed the impact of this inequity on diversity in theatre.
These were only a few of the over 900 posts I have written that have been viewed by over 300,000 readers. Most of those posts, like those above, have been "descendent" -- focusing on what is but shouldn't be.
And while I think those posts have increased awareness of certain issues, the sheer weight of inertia keeps the commercial and institutional theatre and the educational programs that support them proceeding pretty much the way they always have.

It is time for me, as a blogger and an educator, to refocus. For almost all of Theatre Ideas' existence, I have quoted Buckminster Fuller in the sidebar: "You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." This reflects the "ascendant" function of writing, to which I would add another category. If the descendent reveals what is and shouldn't be, and the ascendant what isn't but ought to be, then there should be another category that I will call reverent that reveals what is and ought to be appreciated. It is time that the latter two get more attention from me.

All of which is to say that I will no longer be writing on Theatre Ideas, although I will continue writing. While I could simply shift the tone of Theatre Ideas, I find the accumulated weight of the descendent past difficult to overcome, and so in the near future I will be creating a new blog and website that is focused on the ascendant and reverent as they connect to the theatre and the creative life in general. It is my intention to maintain that focus not only in my writing, but also in my teaching and my life in general. My goal will be to inspire rather than depress, to offer a different path rather than criticize the path that has already been blazed, to light a candle rather than curse the darkness.

This new direction became very clear to me yesterday -- significantly, New Year's Eve -- when I read a sample of Seth Godin's newest book The Icarus Deception: How High Will You Fly? This led me to Godin's Domino Project, through which he has looked closely at the business model of the publishing business, found it dysfunctional, and rather than simply criticizing that model, has instead created a new approach that seems, at first blush, to be very successful. In The Icarus Deception, he urges us all to do the same, and I am accepting his challenge.

This year, I turn 55, and I want to devote the final decade of my career to helping my students and others like them to lead happier, more balanced, and more fulfilling lives filled with creativity and original thinking. One piece of that will be to start a new blog, another is to lead a free on-line "course" (really, an independent study) called "Strategies for Becoming an Independent Artist" which will explore personal options that can help people move toward that goal. (If you wish to be a part of that course, please email me at walt828 at gmail dot com. I'll be starting up in a few weeks.) I am also planning on some publishing projects of my own. So yes, 2013 will be a year of transitions, new projects, and a new attitude.

I have enjoyed writing Theatre Ideas, and I thank everyone who has read it over the years. The blog will remain up, of course, so access to previous posts will continue. And I will post the URL for the new blog (and website?) as soon as I have created it.

Happy New Year!