Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Think Again: Funding and Budgets in the Arts

Every once in a while, I think I'll post a link or two to posts written earlier in the life of Theatre Ideas that seem worth revisiting today. I'll label these posts "Think Again" in the hope that  the passage of time might lead to new ideas and perspectives regarding to the issue raised in the original post.

This one comes from 2011, when the Occupy Wall Street movement was having an impact on American economic discussions. At the same time, an important report by Holly Sidford and the the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy issued a report entitled Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change had also been released that examined patterns of arts giving in the US. After having read the report, I decided to crunch some numbers concerning philanthropic giving in the theater. 

The result was a two-part "series" that showed the results of my research, which revealed that the regional theater scene had an even bigger income distribution problem than the culture as a whole that I called "Occupy Lincoln Center." 

Have a look, if you're interested. I'd be curious if anything has changed in the ensuing eleven years. If anything, I suspect it's gotten worse.

Saturday, November 26, 2022

Sara Porkalob: The Revolt of the Empowered Artist

When Vulture writer Jason P. Frank published his interview with 1776 cast member Sara Porkalob on October 14th, the online theater world had a meltdown. 

There were several things that got people exercised about the interview, but the part that seemed to cause the most outrage was at the very end of the interview when Porkalob was asked how much of "herself" she was giving to her performance in 1776. "I’m giving 75 percent," she answered forthrightly. "When I do [my solo] 'Molasses to Rum,' I’m giving 90 percent." From the reaction, you'd have thought she had admitted to sacrificing animals as a pre-performance warmup. How dare she not give 100%, outraged theater people shouted on the interview's website and on Twitter. Andrew Terranova's response is representative of the overall tone: "You are ungrateful for your job. You should be fired. Your attitude is the only thing old and dusty. Maybe if you spent less than 72 minutes a day pooping you’d have energy to show up for your 1 song." (Pooping? I have no idea...) He concluded his brief rant with #fireporkalob," a hashtag that, strangely, did not go viral. As time went on, I became convinced that New York's actors would assemble outside of American Airlines Theatre* prior to that night's performance of 1776, join hands, and belt out a medley of A Chorus Line songs concluding with an impassioned mashup of "Music and the Mirror" and "What I Did for Love." 

Nevertheless, Porkalob is actually passionate about acting, and she seems committed to excellence. Audiences are "gonna get 75 percent, but that 75 percent will be great," she asserts, and reviews of her performance seem to bear this out. So no, this is not about phoning in a performance or a commitment to the art form, it is about something broader and more important:  it's about work/life balance; about having something left for others; about living a life. 

Porkalob is very clear about her self-evaluation: "Giving 100 percent of myself to everything all the time is a recipe for disaster," she explained. "How am I going to have time for myself, for my partner, or for my family?" Indeed, this seems to be a common theme for actors of late. For instance, Jesse Green wrote a series of articles this summer exploring the topic of abuse, self-care, and life within the theater community. Even before then, Amber Gray, in an interview with the Times' Michael Paulson after her departure from Hadestown, also mentioned work/life balance: "I asked for an alternate to do the Sunday matinee and Tuesday night, so that I could have three days off, away from that building, one of those days being Sunday, when my children are not in school. I wasn’t seeing my kids, and that was deeply painful. I didn’t have kids to not raise them. All I wanted was a little family time, and they gave it to me." I.e., she took two performances off from an eight-show-a-week schedule -- according to my math, that's 75%. But to my knowledge, when Paulson published this article, nobody blinked an eye, nor was Gray pilloried as an ungrateful, over-pooping slacker.

So what's different this time? Part of it, I suspect, is that Porkalob is a Broadway newcomer and, well, how dare she not spend every spare moment thanking God for her great good luck. She also has the temerity to be smart, articulate, confident, and willing to discuss and even question (gasp) interpretive choices and rehearsal processes. The latter is especially seen as a real breach of protocol. Like Fight Club, apparently, the first rule of theater rehearsal is you do not talk about theater rehearsal. (The second rule is that performers, when asked, should always crow some version of "it's the Best Goddamn Play I've Ever Had the Privilege of Being In." And the third rule is that interpretation is the Director's Job and performers should keep their mouths shut and do as they're told. Professional actors, don't @ me--you know this is true.)

Anyway, either Porkalob didn't get the memo, or more likely hit delete. And for that, I celebrate--would that there were more like her.

Lost in all this hysteria is something much more subversive: Porkalob's approach to her career. She doesn't see being an actor in a Broadway musical as the ultimate goal, the pinnacle of an actor's career. In fact, for her it's a fall-back. Asked whether 1776 is a "career move," she forthrightly says yes. "I told myself when I graduated in 2012 from undergrad that when the time came to move to New York, it would be on my own terms. The first choice would be to move here by introducing my original work. I'm living the second-best choice which is coming into New York already cast in a Broadway musical." But that's not the end goal. "I don't want just a career," she says. "I could make a career just being in commercial Broadway musicals....I guess the money would be fine....But I don't want that to be my life." Cue heads exploding throughout the Theatre District.

The interviewer, to his credit, recognizes that this is the center of the story, and he frames it by pointing out that Porkalob is "previously best known for her Dragon Cycle trilogy of solo-performed musicals exploring her family history," and so is "used to directing, starring in, and writing her own shows." In other words, Porkalob is identified as someone with a broader perspective than the typical performer in a Broadway musical. Indeed, the first part of the interview focuses on the directorial interpretation of several scenes, which Porkalob discusses insightfully, honestly, and critically. 

Then Frank asks, "How does it feel to be in the back seat of decision making?" This is where it gets really interesting. "It's horrible. I hate it," she admits. "What I want to do with my time," she continues, "is make new works with collaborators." So: she wants to be in artistic control of the work, to choose her collaborators, and to make work that is new, original, and meaningful today. Performing in a revival of a 50-year old musical with a concept of warmed-over Hamilton leftovers can't compete.

But she's willing to delay her original creation in order to acquire more resources and a higher profile. "At the end of the day, if I'm compromising my desire to do my own work, but the resources are there, it really just comes down to labor. If I'm compromising, I'd better be getting paid a lot more money, honey."Asked what she hopes to get out of doing 1776, she responds with refreshing honesty about her own desires: "A Tony nomination, good reviews, and a smart, personable, hard-working agency that's ready to rep me." But she doesn't want to do just anything; she recognizes a broader social impact. "The casting [of 1776] provides resources. The resources include a weekly salary, but also exposure for actors who traditionally would not be cast in this show. In terms of visibility, it is showing our audiences all of these faces that wouldn't typically be seen." So while she's compromising, she's still living within her values. But she isn't living the dream, she's "going to work." 

Personally, I have a hard time imagining that she will continue doing 1776 for eight years like Amber Gray did with Hadestown. Rather, once she has gotten the Tony nomination, the acclaim, and the hard-working representation, she will rush back to the artistic work about which she's passionate. She'll find the collaborators who can help her develop her vision, and tell the stories that she cares about. In other words, she'll go back to being an artist and leave being an employee behind. She will return to giving 100% of her "self," combining a playwright's creativity, a performer's intensity and talents, and a producer's drive. But, she says, making explicit her own career goal, "I want to choose when I do that." 

She wants to be in control of the means of artistic production. She doesn't have the mindset of an employee. She doesn't want to bow down in gratitude for being allowed an opportunity to use her multiple talents. She wants to decide for herself when she is creating space for herself, her partner, her family, and when she will pour all of herself into creating a new project. And that's what is revolutionary about her interview. It's about true empowerment as an artist. 

Which is why the attacks on her were instant and virulent. Her approach to her career explicitly rejects the well-worn Myth of Broadway and instead opens the possibility--a possibility that has been always been available--that theater artists can develop their own artistry by following their own vision and controlling the means of production. 

* I still can't believe there is a theater on 42nd Street called American Airlines Theater, for crying out loud. It's like naming rights on football stadiums.

Wednesday, November 02, 2022

Welcome to the New Theatre Ideas

 This coming New Year's Day will mark ten years since I last wrote on this site. 

Ten. Years.

If you read the last post I wrote before I let it go dormant, Ascendance, Descendence, Reverence, and New Beginnings, you'll see described how I hoped to spend the last ten years of my teaching career. I actually didn't make it that long--I retired in December of 2020, just before the pandemic took my university online. By then, I was burnt out and ready for some new challenges. 

In the years since I retired, I edited, designed, and published a memoir-biography left behind by my late friend, mentor, and co-author, Calvin Pritner, called Mark Twain & Me: Unlearning Racism, which allowed me to get into print a book that Calvin had spent years writing. It was a labor of love, giving me a chance to hear Cal's voice again. I also wrote and published a supplement to Calvin's and my textbook, Introduction to Play Analysis, which demonstrates how the analysis techniques we describe work when applied to a single play. It's called Play Analysis in Action: Susan Glaspell's Trifles. I also wrote a "teaser" blog called Theatre Inspiration, in which I began laying out some of the ideas that I plan to publish in a new book about ways theater artists might take control of their own careers. I have not gotten around to creating an online course, but I did get together online during the pandemic with some of my former students to read and discuss a few plays (you can find this documented at Reading Plays With Scott).

So why come back to Theatre Ideas?

Well, I blame playwright Laura Axelrod, a longtime blogger from the Theatrosphere Wars of the Oughts. In the wake of Elon Musk's purchase of Twitter, she suggested we might want to start blogging again, since things on Twitter seemed to be going downhill. (Her blog, Gasp, will also be going live soon.) 

To be honest, Twitter had never been a great format for me. My ideas require long-form writing, rather than the aphoristic combativeness (or glibness) that does so well there. 

It also seems to me that some things are happening in the theater that might signal larger changes to come, and I want to shine a light on those things and brainstorm ideas. For instance, the closing of the theaters during the pandemic brought new energy to the exploration of digital theatre, with people like Jared Mezzocchi promoting it as an art form that opens new possibilities for theater to expand its reach.  I also was fascinated by the controversy surrounding Sara Porkalob's interview with Jason P. Frank at Vulture, and how people seemed to miss the truly important thing that Porkalob says (more on that later -- hint: it's not about giving 75%). And a lot of things have been perking around in my head for ten years.

So I have some thoughts, and I hope they will stimulate your imagination, entertain your mind, and provide an alternative take on what is happening in theater and the arts in our country. I know blogging is so two-decades-ago, but oh well. Writing is what I enjoy doing.

But enough about me -- what about you?

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
  • 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!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Robert Gard Redux

Today, I will be discussing arts pioneer Robert E. Gard in my course on community arts development, which gives me an excuse to report this essay I wrote about two years ago on Robert Gard's 100th birthday.


Today is grassroots theatre pioneer Robert Gard's 100th birthday, which I would like to commemorate by reprinting this post from Theatre Ideas two years ago:
As the book description explains, "Robert Gard’s timeless book is a moving account of one man’s struggle to bring his dream of community-building through creative theater to citizens around the country. He traveled across America—from New York’s Finger Lakes to the prairies of Alberta, Canada, to the backwoods of northern Wisconsin—discovering and nurturing the folklore, legends, history, and drama of the region. He talked to ballad singers, painters, the tellers of tall tales, and farm women, whose poetry and painting reflected the elemental violence of nature and quiet joys of neighborliness. Grassroots Theater reminds us that an individual’s creative vision transcends technology, current events, and changing demographics." Originally published in 1955 and re-released by the University of Wisconsin Press in 1999, this book still has the power to inspire and refresh. Gard's vision of a theater rooted in a community and committed to works created by citizens who live within that community was realized through the Wisconsin Idea Theater housed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Extension, and the Wisconsin Rural Writers' Association. This very personal and engaging book gives insights into the trials and victories, and the people and ideas that Gard encountered as he brought his ideas into existence.

A quotation that I found inspiring:

"It seems to me that a stream of fine new community arts leaders should be issuing from the University of Wisconsin and, indeed, from all universities and colleges of the nation. The universities and colleges are training artists, many of them, and training teachers. The theater departments are training actors, technicians, directors, and writers for whom there is at present little place in the profession for which they are being trained. No consideration is given to the fact that a profession might be developed in community life in theater. The young person graduating from the university has little concept of the scope of te theater to be developed, of the delicate social problems of fitting himself and his talents successfully into community life. He is too frequently a failure when he attempts it."

The Wisconsin Arts Board has acknowledged the Gard Centenary with the following:
Wisconsin community arts pioneer Robert Gard was born 100 years ago, on July 3, 2010. To learn more about Robert Gard and his work, visit the Robert E. Gard Wisconsin Idea Foundation’s web site.

We would like to celebrate Gard through two of his famous quotes. The first is well known to Wisconsin’s arts community as the Wisconsin Arts Board adopted it as its vision statement:
"If we are seeking in America, let it be for the reality of democracy in the arts. Let art begin at home and let it spread through the children and the parents, and through the schools and the institutions, and through government. And let us start by acceptance, not negation-acceptance that the arts are important everywhere, and that they can exist and flourish in small places as well as large, with money or without it, according to the will of the people. Let us put firmly and permanently aside the cliché that the arts are a frill. Let us accept the goodness of art where we are now, and expand its worth in the places where people live."

The second quote is the closing poem from The Arts in the Small Community: A National Plan. We have used part of this poem as the title for the Gard Symposium to be held September 24 and 25, 2010 in Madison. The Symposium will address the question “Where is community arts headed?” and it will be one of many events over the next year to mark the Gard Centenary.

If you try, what may you expect?
First a community
Welded through art to a new consciousness of self:
A new being, perhaps a new appearance…
A people proud
Of achievements which lift them through the creative
Above the ordinary…
A new opportunity for children
To find exciting experiences in art
And to carry this excitement on
Throughout their lives…
A mixing of peoples and backgrounds
Through art; a new view
Of hope for mankind and an elevation
Of man…not degradation.
New values for individual and community
Life, and a sense
That here, in our place,
We are contributing to the maturity
Of a great nation.
If you try, you can indeed
Alter the face and the heart
Of America.

Celebrate the arts in community this July 4th weekend, remember Robert Gard, and all who work to develop communities through the arts.
Change the story, change the future. Gard wrote, presciently:

America is coming of age. Note the many changing aspects of America.

A maturing America means a nation conscious of its arts among all its people. Communities east, west, north, and south are searching for ways to make community life more attractive.

The arts are at the very center of community development in this time of change...change for the better.

The frontier and all that it once meant in economic development and in the sheer necessity of building a nation is being replaced by the frontier of the arts. In no other way can Americans so well express the core and blood of their democracy; for in the communities lies the final test of the acceptance of the arts as a necessity of everyday life.

In terms of American democracy, the arts are for everyone.They are not reserved for the wealthy, or for the well-endowed museum, the gallery, or the ever-subsidized regional professional theatre. As America emerges into a different understanding of her strength, it becomes clear that her strength is in the people and in the places where the people live.

The people, if shown the way, can create art in and of themselves.

The springs of the American spirit are at the grass roots. Opportunities must exist in places where they never have existed before. A consciousness of the people, a knowledge of their power to generate and nourish art, and a provision of ways in which they may do so are essential for our time.

If we are seeking in America, let it be a seeking for the reality of democracy in art. Let art begin at home, and let it spread through the children and their parents, and through the schools, the institutions, and through government.

And let us start by acceptance, not negation--acceptance that the arts are important everywhere, and that they can exist and flourish in small places as well as in large; with money, or without, according to the will of the people. Let us put firmly and permanently aside as a cliché of an expired moment in time that art is a frill. Let us accept the goodness of art where we are now, and expand its worth in the places where people live."

Robert Gard, Arts in the Small Community (1969)
When I read this ringing endorsement of the power of the arts in the lives of ordinary people, and the power of ordinary people in the arts, and then I think of so many of the conversations we have here in the theatrosphere and face-to-face, I am reminded of the minister's funeral oration over the body of Alex, a young man who has committed suicide, in the movie The Big Chill. The minister looks out into the assembled mourners, mostly baby boomers who have lost their idealism, and he asks, "Where did Alex's hope go?" When did we become so convinced that what we do is so little desired, so little respected? When did we lose sight of our importance to a community's understanding of who it is and what it believes?

But those are the wrong questions. Those are questions based in blame and retribution, questions that points us to the past: how did we get here? It is what Carolynn Myss calls "woundology," a focusing on one's injuries and wrongs, a dwelling in the past instead of the future. How we got here is unimportant; where we are going is crucial. As artists, we need to commit to a conversation about possibility.

Peter Block, in his excellent book Community: The Structure of Belonging, describes what such a conversation is like:
The possibility conversation frees us to be pulled by a new future. The distinction is between possibility, which lives into the future, and problem solving, which makes improvements on the past. This distinction takes its value from an understanding that living systems are propelled by the force of the future, and possibility as we use it one way of speaking of the future.

Possibility occurs as a declaration, and declaring a possibility wholeheartedly can, in fact, be the transformation. The leadership task is to postpone problem solving and stay focused on possibility until it is spoken with resonance and passion. The good news is that once we have fully declared a possibility, it works on us -- we do not have to work on it.

The challenge with possibility is it gets confused with goals, predictions, and optimism. Possibility is not about what we plan to happen, or what we think will happen, or whether things will get better. Goals, prediction, and optimism don't create anything; they just might make things a little better and cheer us up in the process. Nor is possibility simply a dream. Dreaming leaves us bystanders or observers of our lives. Possibility creates something new. It is a declaration of a future that has thye quality of being and aliveness that we choose to live into. It is framed as a declaration of the world that I want to inhabit. It is a statement of who I am that transcends our history, our story, our usual demographics. The power is in the act of declaring...The future is created through a declaration of what is the possibility we stand for.
What possibility do you stand for? Block asks, "What is the crossroads where you find yourself at this stage of your life or in the project around which we are assembled?" Or more directly, and to my mind even more powerfully: "What declaration of possibility can you make that has the power to transform the community and inspire you?" And the two "overarching questions" that point to the future: "What do we want to create together that would make the difference?" And "What can we create together than we cannot create alone?"

For me, I find myself at a crossroads in this project of expanding the reach of theatre throughout America where the artist and the community meets; where virtuosity and specialization meets human creativity and common wisdom; where fear meets trust.

In a chapter near the end of Patrick Overton's outstanding book Rebuilding the Front Porch of America called "The Deep Voice: The Relationship Between Art, Spirituality, and Healing," Overton, who testified in front of Congress during the hearings about the NEA's support of controversial art in 1990, makes a declaration of possibility:
The arts aren't the cause of the crisis facing our culture, they are a cure. The arts aren't the source of the hurting in our society, they are a way of healing the pain. The arts are not in and of themselves, evil; they are an authentic expression of self that manifest in an individual's courage to face life as it really is. Art that is not an authentic expression of self is not art -- it is propaganda, or a product -- but it is not art. Art is the voice of the soul struggling to express what it means to be human.
He discusses participating in a think tank meeting for the Theatre Program of the NEA where there were two members who had a history together, and what seemed opposite visions of the arts.
One, from a very prestigious private foundation, kept talking about the beauty and magnificence of art because it lifted her spirit. To her, art makes meaning and beauty and this is the kind of art her foundation was interested in funding, This is art that inspires transcendence. The other person was from a theatre company from the south and he talked about art as that which must challenge the status quo. To him, art is not something created to be beautiful, or to make people pleasant or happy or comfortable. Art is something that confronts what is wrong and unjust in our society and is designed to make people feel uncomfortable. To him art reveals what is wrong with out world and, in so doing. demands something be done to change it. This is art that inspires transformation.

As I listened to them, it seemed to me they weren't really disagreeing. In essence, they were both saying the same thing, but in a different weay. To understand the nature of art, we have to understand it in both its "ascendant" and "descendant" purpose. Art can, through ascendance, through the elevation of the human spirit, help us transcend what we know, what we see, what we understand. When art does this it is "awful" (that is, full of awe). This is when art lifts the spirit. It is the exhale -- art that empties us and sucks the air out of our lungs because of its power and the truth of the simple/complexity it protrays in such a profound way. This is when art reveals mystery and truth and grasps us with such intensity that it transcends the human condition, and leaves us changed, forever. Art is one of the few things left in our world that can create this much-needed sense of "awe-fullness" in us.

But there is another function in art, art as descendence. Art can be an invitation (sometimes compelling) to descend from the surface of our lives -- beyond the facade and the masks, to the depths of our existence -- the deep place where truth exists. When art does this, it is the inhale -- driving us into ourselves, forcing us to gasp for air, taking in the force and intensity of the experience inside of us because of the power and the truth of the simple/compelcity it portrays in such a powerful way.

The one, the descendent function, reveals what is and shouldn't be. The other, the ascendent function, reveals what isn't but could be. Art can be beautiful and lift our spirits -- but art can also force us to face the truth -- to descend to the deep place and see the world as it is and shouldn't be. They both do the same thing -- they are a way we can transcend the condition of our lives -- a way we are transformed. These two functions cannot be separated -- they are converse images of the same creative force -- the same truth.
He then, in one of the most powerful descriptions of what art can do to heal, describes when he was invited to speak at the dedication of the Huntsville Vietnam Memorial in 1994. A Vietnam veteran himself, Overton had not spoken about his experience in Vietnam since his return to the US in 1968. Reluctantly, he agreed. He stood up in front of a crowd of older and younger people, mostly veterans of various wars, and he talked about his experiences on a flagship in the Gulf of Tonkin, and later in a naval hospital in Japan. He closed his speech by reading a poem that he wrote specifically for the dedication ceremony about his experiences with the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. The poem, entitled The Healing Wall, is stunning and deeply felt, and while I would like to share it with you, it is much too long for this already-long post. But in it, he describes his unwillingness to experience the wall, and then his eventual visit in which he looked for a name that he did not find -- his own, and he felt the pain of having survived. He ended the poem with this line: "No more walls, please, no more walls."

He writes:
I will never forget that afternoon in Huntsville. It was an emotional experience for all of us. Following my speech, people were very quiet, still. It reminded me of my visit to the Wall in DC. Slowly, people began to move, looking through the crowd for someone to hold, to hug. There was a need to touch. There was not a lot of talking. I saw men of my father's generation with tears running down their faces, something that is all too rare for them. I saw sons and fathers embrace -- with a kind of knowing and understanding that may not have existed before. That afternoon in May invited a small community, deeply wounded by the war, to heal. My speech and poetry did not do the healing. The people did. What I did was extend the invitation. What writing the poem did was invite me to name my own healing and celebrate it. And, by sharing the poem with that community, I invited others to name their own healing and celebrate it with each other as well.
After I read his poem, and imagined his reading of it, and after I finished the essay, I wondered whether it was ascendant or descendent art, and the more I thought about it, the more I felt that it was both, like a descent into hell and a resurrection. In Ireland, Frank Delaney tells a story of an Ulster king who always had his cart pulled by two horses, a black horse and a white horse, because they represented both sides of himself that he must always ride yoked together. Perhaps that is when art is truly transcendent and inspired.

Overton describes a possibility for theatre and for the arts -- a possibility of healing. Sometimes healing requires surgery -- the cutting of flesh and the inflicting of pain in order to remove that which is diseased. Other times, what is required is nursing, care-full tending and attention. But the motivation is the same: to heal. That is an attitude of goodwill, of caring.

And so I declare here the possibility of caring as a relationship between artist and community, a mutual healing to be shared through descendence and ascendance, inhaling and exhaling, together. I declare the possibility that our fellow citizens hunger for what we can create together, by bringing our imaginations together in one place, and that like Jesus with the loaves and fishes, we can feed everyone through an attitude of abundance. I declare the possibility that all people everywhere share this hunger, and deserve to be fed what will most nourish them.

What is your possibility? What is the crossroads where you find yourself at this stage of your life or work in the project around which we are assembled? What declaration of possibility can you make that has the power to transform the community and inspire you?

Monday, October 01, 2012

Rural Arts at

The first article of a weeklong series at about rural arts has appeared: Dudley Cocke's Rural Theatre in a Democracy

As the week continues, you will find the following:

  • Monday, 5pm EDT: Donna Neuwirth (WormFarm)
  • Tuesday, 5pm EDT: Scott Walters (CRADLE)
  • Wednesday, 11:30a EDT: Nikiko Masumoto (Independent Artist)
  • Wednesday, 5pm EDT: Patrick Overton (Front Porch Institute)
  • Thursday, 5pm EDT: Friday Phone Call Podcast with Noah Siegler (Stage North)
  • Friday, 5pm EDT: LaMoine MacLaughlin (Northern Lakes Center for the Arts)
  • Saturday, 11am EDT: Matthew Fluharty, Rural Arts & Culture Conference Wrap Up (Art of the Rural)

I have enjoyed curating this series, and would like to thank all the authors who wroked so quickly to provide excellent articles on the state of rural arts in America. I hope my readers will check it out.

Thursday, August 23, 2012


So I just got the following press release. After all this time, I don't really need to spell this out, do I? I'll highlight the cities and link to their counties. Bottom line: rich get richer. Same ole same ole. Thanks TCG and Met Life for continuing to define "innovative idea development" in terms of the same people doing the same thing: in-school theatre classes, expanding upon already existing theatre engagement practices, exchanging artists. Seriously? This is what passes for innovation at TCG?

August 23, 2012                                                                                                            

MetLife Foundation and Theatre Communications Group Announce Fifth Round Recipients of the A-ha! Program

New YorkNY – MetLife Foundation and Theatre Communications Group (TCG) announce the fifth round of recipients for theMetLife/TCG A-ha! Program: Think It, Do It, which supports the creative thinking and action of TCG Member Theatres with the goal of impacting the larger theatre community. Five theatres were awarded grants totaling $225,000 to either research and develop new ideas or experiment and implement innovative concepts.

The A-ha! Program has two components: Think It grants ($25,000), which give theatre professionals the time and space for research and development and Do It grants ($50,000), which support the implementation and testing of new ideas. The projects supported by the A-ha! Program will go on to impact more than just the recipient theatres. Successful initiatives will serve as models for theatre and arts professionals across the country.  

“Theatres are filled with creative and entrepreneurial minds that rarely have access to the risk capitol needed to conceive and test out new ideas,” said Teresa Eyring, executive director of TCG. “This round of the A-ha! Program will empower innovative idea development and action in areas like artisan exchange, community engagement and arts education.”

“The recipients of the fifth round of the A-ha! Program exemplify MetLife Foundation’s commitment to building livable communities through access to the arts,” said Dennis White, president and CEO, MetLife Foundation. “We are proud to continue our partnership with TCG and serve as a catalyst for the creativity and risk-taking that are essential to the growth of the not-for-profit theatre field.”

The 2012 MetLife/TCG A-ha! Program recipients are:

  • California Shakespeare Theater, BerkeleyCA
    California Shakespeare Theater’s Artist as Investigator project will invite 10 artists to lead experiments in new methodologies in how theatre is made, with whom it is made, and to what end it is made.

Atlantic Theater Company and Park Slope Collegiate, a public high school in Brooklyn, will partner on Staging Success, providing four years of in-school theatre classes to more than 300 students and an intensive afterschool mentorship for select seniors.

Cornerstone Theatre Company will expand upon their existing community-engagement efforts by providing tools and resources to community participants for ongoing impact, thereby improving economic viability in the communities they serve.

Mixed Blood will assemble a comprehensive national database of both artists with disabilities and English-language plays that explore worlds of disability in content, as central theme or via character.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival will develop an Artisan Exchange of production skills and resources with three to five other theatres. Three to five OSF craftspeople will work eight to twelve weeks at those theatres, and will in turn host three to five artisans to assume parallel jobs at OSF.
For more information about the program and previous recipients, visit:

Think Again: Funding and Budgets in the Arts

Every once in a while, I think I'll post a link or two to posts written earlier in the life of Theatre Ideas that seem worth revisiting ...