Monday, July 02, 2007

The New Tribalism and Theatre

I have been wanting to write about Daniel (Ishmael) Quinn's book Beyond Civilization: Humanity's Next Great Adventure, but I haven't had sufficient time to do it justice. I still don't have time, but if I wait until I do I'll never get it posted.

The book as a whole is a fascinating exploration of of what Quinn called "Taker" and "Leaver" culture in Ishmael. I urge you to read Beyond Civilization in its entirety, and then read Ishmael and Providence: The Story of a Fifty-Year Vision Quest. I've read all three in the past couple weeks, and they made a strong impact.

The part six of Beyond Civilization is called "The New Tribal Revolution," and it begins with this quotation:

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.
--Buckminster Fuller

I'm not certain that what Quinn is proposing is a new model as much as a return to a new and equally original version of an old model. In essence, what he proposes is "occupational tribalism: self-sustaining "tribes" organized around a way of making a living. Before we go any further and you start having 60s flashbacks, it is necessary to differentiate a "tribe" from a "commune." "Communes are about living together and may or may not involve working together. Tribes...originate among people who want to pool their energies and skills to make a living together" and they don't necessarily live together (in fact, it is probably better if they don't).

If you're thinking, "Say, this sounds like what theatre people sometimes do, especially in the indie movement" Quinn agrees with you. In fact, two of the three examples he gives of tribes in our culture are theatrical: small traveling circuses, and the Chicago theatre group the Neo-Futurists. He also talks about a small community newspaper that he, his wife, and several committed friends ran in Arizona.

However, be careful about thinking that all small theatres are tribal, because it isn't true. Most theatres, large or small, involve employees arranged in a hierarchy of power, whereas "a tribe is nothing more than a coalition of people working together as equals to make a living." [ital mine] It is a self-sustaining, ongoing group of people who, "among them, have all the competencies needed to start and run a given business," who are "content with a modest standard of living," and who are "willing to think 'tribally -- that is, to take away what they need out of the business rather than to expect set wages." A self-sustaining tribe "needs to perform all the functions that will make it successful." While each person may have something they are especially good at, they nevertheless share responsibility for all aspects of the tribal business. So, in the case of a theatre, a person may be an actor, but if program ads need to be sold or lights hung, you willingly pitch in. Again, at least to some extent, this is the case in most indie theatres.

But note one factor that drops many theatres out of the tribal category: it is an ongoing group. In other words, it is not a small group of "leaders" who hold auditions to cast actors and/or hire designers from the outside. All members of the tribe are insiders, and as such have equal commitment to the health and direction of the tribe. In other words, "members of the tribe aren't employees of the tribe, they are the tribe....Because the tribe is its members, the tribe is what its members want it to be -- nothing more and nothing less." Obviously, if you think that a theatre requires a single "visionary" that everybody follows, and who makes most substantive artistic decisions, then Quinn's vision is not for you.

As far as the extension of the tribe to include new members, the "tribal rule of thumb is: Can you extend the living to include yourself? In other words, if you want to live out of the tribal occupation, you'll have to extend the group's earning power to the point where it covers you."

This doesn't mean there isn't a "boss." However, "all jobs must be done -- and the boss's is just pone of them. In hierarchical organizations, the boss is a supreme being. In tribal organizations, the boss is just another worker."

What is most important is a mutual commitment from all concerned to the tribe. Each individual commits to the tribe, and the tribe to the individual. It is necessary to make money for the tribe to continue, but at the same time money isn't the object.

The theatre must be kept going so that it can keep the tribe going, but when money-making becomes more important than the idea that holds the group together, then the tribe falls apart.

What all this means, first and foremost, and perhaps most difficult for theatre people to embrace, is the abandonment of the individualistic concept of career and creativity. If you look at something like, say, the Group Theatre of the 1930s, in some ways (especially in the first years) there was a tribal sensibility. But the organization was hierarchical (Clurman, Strasberg, and _____ made all the decisions), and each individual artist abandoned the theatre to pursue their own careers. It also means giving up a sense that you are a specialist who, if all is going well, doesn’t stoop to working outside your specialty. No divas in tribes.

Why this is important, at least to me, goes back to my steadfast belief that the current industrial system of production, which resembles more a Ford plant than an artistic process, doesn’t function in a way that furthers the art forms. From an educational standpoint, I think I should be teaching students to form tribes rather than how to go out and get headshots, agents, and slick audition techniques.

Does everyone need to do this? Hell no. “What Daniel Quinn teaches is that no single person is going to save the world. Rather (if it’s saved at all), it will be saved by millions (and ultimately billions) of us living a new way. A thousand living a new way won’t cause the dominant world order to topple. But a thousand will inspire a hundred thousand, who will inspire a billion – and then that world order will begin to look shaky.”

As I mentioned, Quinn mentions the Neo-Futurists. Of course, there are other theatres who follow this same basic pattern. One might think of Mabou Mines or the Wooster Group, perhaps, or many, many other theatres around the country. So perhaps in addition to looking at what they create, we should be writing about how they create it.

The question I would ask you, dear reader, is how such an approach to theatre production might be creatively empowering. Not for everyone, of course, but if you find yourself intrigued by the idea, how might it be good for you?


Ian Mackenzie said...

"It also means giving up a sense that you are a specialist who, if all is going well, doesn’t stoop to working outside your specialty. No divas in tribes."

I have spent the past few weeks working myself into a froth over the lack of specialization among local theatre makers in my town. "Everyone's a generalist . . ." But as soon as I arrived at what I thought was a solid argument for specialization and against generalization . . . the whole idea begins to fall apart.

Most problematic, and I think this speaks to your point on tribalism, is that specialization is a form of centralized dominance. Power is held by the single, all-knowing specialist whose opinion on any subject under their dominion shall be the final and deciding word.

I like this model of tribalism because it seems to make room for specialists working within a collective.

". . . all jobs must be done -- and the boss's is just one of them. In hierarchical organizations, the boss is a supreme being. In tribal organizations, the boss is just another worker."

So you can have special expertise at managing the group's labour, for example, without buying into the traditional power dynamics.

Lots to think about, Scott. Thanks!


Tony Adams said...

Great food for thought. One question I have is: what is the difference between a tribal group with a leader, and a hierarchical organization? Is it the difference between a boss and a leader, i.e. the qualities of that person? Is it a lack of codification?

Ian, I go back and forth about specialization vs. generalists. I keep coming back to artists who know other parts of the craft tend to be better. Not necessarily better than the person next to them, but better than they would be. (and better to work with.)

For example, an actor who only knows acting is in a tough spot if they are ignorant of the rest of what goes into a production. But not everyone is good at everything. So for me, while not everyone has to do every task, I think everyone should have a basic understanding of what that task is and what that person is trying to accomplish. Like actors who understand the basics of lighting, tend to find their light more often.

Scott Walters said...

Tony -- tribal groups don't have leaders, they have bosses -- by which Quinn means people who coordinate some of the administrative functions of whatever the business is. In the hierarchical theatre, hierarchy is created and power is wielded according to two elements: money and the text. The producer has the power of the purse strings, and so has the power of hiring and firing, and of budget setting, which defines the parameters within which the artists create. The director holds interpretive power over the text -- the power to be The One who decides what a play means and how it will be embodied. The next step down are the designers and actors, who are allowed to make interpetive choices, but only within the parameters set by the director.

In a tribal model, both the monetary and the interpretive power would be distributed rather than top-down. An individual might perform a particular function, but does so with the involvement and approval of the tribe as a whole.

I am waiting for some Edward Gordon Craig fan to write: art can't be created by a committee. To which I would respond: you can't create art like you build a Buick, which is how we do it now. If theatre is a collaborative art, an idea which every theatre person regularly waves like a flag, then it ought to be truly collaborative: people working together -- co-labor -- to create.

Tony Adams said...

Art can't be created by committee . . .

Just kidding. I think I understand what you mean between the producer version and an alternative version. I'll have to read the book when I get a chance.

I've been on both sides of the spectrum, working under a producer (and as a producer) as well as with a company that had no person empowered with the ability to make a decision if the group is incapable of coming to a decision--which doesn't work if every other aspect follows the traditional model of seasons etc. If you're opening a show in August, at some point the group needs to decide what they are doing.

I have also worked with directors (as a designer, actor and producer) who felt, and were very vocal about the fact, that they were the only opinion available, a sort of a creative dictator. God did those processes and shows suck.

I currently look for a middle ground.

As a footnote: For as much of Craig's work that is brilliant (many designers are still catching up) there's probably an equal amount to be disregarded. Unless someone wants to sit in an room and redesign a set for the Scottish play over and over again for years, without having a performance. But it is a strong choice.

Scott Walters said...

Yes, I think we've all had experiences of the frustration of group work -- there is no doubt that working with a group is less efficient than a hierarchical decision-making process. But I suspect we've all also had experiences where the decision-maker is an idiot (for instance, say, Bush).

Which leads me to a question: why is it that theatre people are not taught how to collaborate? Why don't we learn group dynamics and group decision-making processes? Why are we taught only the hierarchical model? There are definite skills involved with group processes -- it isn't a "natural" and "instinctive" process that can simply be acquired osmotically.

Every time I bring up a course on collaboration in my department, the chair tells me that that is "graduate level stuff," and even then do we really need it? I just sit there open-mouthed.

Tony Adams said...

That's the million dollar question. In a form that requires collaboration, there's hell of a turf war going on.

Paul Rekk said...

Brilliant, brilliant stuff! Thanks, Scott!

One thought that has been on my mind recently is the inception of the tribe. Speaking as a strong believer in the tribal process, but also just beginning to overcome a Stranger in a Strange Land relocation, I find myself tribeless and without any possible tribes to collaborate in sight. Of course, doing is more productive than talking, but at the same time, tribes seem to spring from close (i.e. longstanding) relationships and build out from there. Of course, familiarity is important, especially in an anti-hierarchy where trust is essential, but it seems as though a tribe should be able to be partially forged, as opposed to an evolutionary fusion.

The strongest answer of course is to simply go it alone at first, which will forge new bonds, as like minds attract -- but I'm curious to hear what others (and Quinn?) have to say about the birth (and birthing process) of a tribe.

Lowell Williams said...

The problem with the tribe idea - and it's a good one - is that it will ultimately break down. Historically, groups that are ordered like this don't survive too long, especially after short term goals are accomplished. There are lots of reasons for this. A tribe might form because of a certain individuals vision, and once that is established, it either morphs into a more traditional form or dies. Charles Ludlam's group was a good example of a tribal company, I think. Ludlam was charismatic enough to hold it together.

The Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, a real world-shaker, did very (very) well using a "no-divas" approach. Eventually, though, it got to a point where it could no longer function. Maybe that's OK.

Scott Walters said...

I think it is OK. Occupational tribes should stay together as long as those involved are fulfilled and satisfied. It is not a lifelong commitment. Nevertheless, by comparison any tribe stays together longer than the single-show, drive-by approach to production we currently "enjoy," don't you think?

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 ...