Saturday, July 07, 2007

On Being a Thinking Blogger

Many thanks to Laura Axelrod for giving me a "Thinking Blogger Award." The origin of the award is the Thinking Blog, and the rules are as follows:

1. If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think,
2. Link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme,
3. Optional: Proudly display the 'Thinking Blogger Award' with a link to the post that you wrote (here is an alternative silver version if gold doesn't fit your blog).

The five blogs that make me think are as follows (and I will not include those already tagged by Laura, or Laura herself, although that makes this list incomplete):

Arlene Goldbard: Culture, Politics, and Spirituality: Arlene is a renowned expert and leader in community-based arts, and so her insights are worth their weight in gold to me. But in addition, as someone who sometimes gets a little too up-in-my-head, I appreciate Arlene's introspective, heartfelt posts that bring me back to my feelings.

Jill Dolan: The Feminist Spectator: Jill's insights bring me great joy, her non-elitist joy in all kinds of art reminds me to refuse to get too damned academic, and her writing soars.

Ian MacKenzie: Theatre Is Territory: There is a refreshing openness to this blog, a joy in the many different people and ideas that make up the theatre scene in Canada and the US. This is an engaged blog that is simulatenously non-judgmental.

Matt Freeman: On Theatre and Politics: I really like Matt's no-nonsense, pragmatic thought processes. He can cut through the BS like no other.

Andrew Taylor: The Artful Manager: Like Matt, Andrew has a pragmatic flavor to his blog. I admire the way he brings in ideas from all over the intellectual map and applies them to theatre. Great stuff.

Thanks to you all, and the many others who contribute their thoughts to the theatrosphere, that keep me inspired, stimulated, and entertained.

More on Tribalism

I'm going to cannibalize a comment I made on Paul Rekk's outstanding blog Que j'ai reve. Paul was writing in response to my post immediately below concerning Daniel Quinn's ideas about occupational tribalism. In his post (go read it) he notes many past theatres and movements that seemed to follow the tribalist impulse.

In the comments, Tony quoted Ben Cameron's excellent advice offered as he left TCG:

* Do not assume that you have to have some prescribed conditions to do your best work.
* Do not wait.
* Do not wait for enough time or money to accomplish what you think you have in mind.
* Work with what you have right now.
* Work with the people around you right now.
* Work with the architecture you see around you right now.
* Do not wait for what you assume is the appropriate, stress-free environment in which to generate expression.
* Do not wait for maturity or insight or wisdom.
* Do not wait till you are sure that you know what you are doing.
* Do not wait until you have enough technique.
* What you do now, what you make of your present circumstances will determine the quality and scope of your future endeavors.

I replied as follows:

Quinn's personal example of a tribe was when he and his wife started a community newspaper, the East Mountain News, in New Mexico. First, there was just the two of them, and they put out a few issues together. Then, a retired newspaper photographer called them and asked if he could work with them -- he said he could do everything except sell advertising. They said that unless they sold more advertising, they wouldn't be able to make it. He said he'd sell advertising. Then a writer contacted them and asked if she could work with them: "Can you sell advertising?" "I can sell anything." This is the rule about new additions adding to the income in some way. And so the four of them did the newspaper. They only printed as many copies as the advertising would pay for, and they split the leftovers equally. No salaries or wages.

The point is that they didn't spend a lot of time making sure they had a common vision of what a newspaper should be, they just created a newspaper together and shaped it as they went. They were four people who wanted to do a newspaper -- period. When Quinn suggested, when money was a little low, that they turn the newspaper into a shopper, which would be more lucrative, everyone said no -- because they wanted to do a newspaper, not a shopper. The money was secondary -- important, but secondary. If it was primary, they would have done a shopper.

You love theatre. If there are a couple more people who also love it, and who are willing and able to contribute their energy in whatever way is necessary to keep the theatre going, then you're on your way. Negotiate as you go.

I agree with Ben Cameron: work with what you have right now. Don't have a theatre, and don't have enough money for a theatre? Then find some place else to perform -- a community center, a retirement home, somebody's living room. Scale your work to the resources available. This is how Commedia dell 'Arte worked, and to some extent Shakespeare and Burbage worked (although they employed wage laborers to play the smaller parts, so it wasn't a pure tribe.) This isn't a new-fangled idea, but something we've forgotten.

I also like your idea about looking outward, too. This is how Steppenwolf and Mabou Mines works -- their members always return home. But initially, they worked intensely together.

By the way, I think a tribe could extend beyond simply using theatrical techniques to create productions. For instance, you might hire yourselves out to businesses to help with training, with team building -- use Boal techniques to help people brainstorm solutions to problems. Write grants to collect oral histories, and then occasionally use those oral histories to create new work. Do podcasts and audiobooks. Expand as desired, but always make sure you have enough people who extend the income base.
Note: Thanks to Slay for this correction: "In the long quotation from Ben Cameron up there, he's actually quoting at length the last page of Anne Bogart's book "A Director Prepares". So, if you like what he says there, get the book. It's full of gems like that." You heard him -- go get the book!

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?

Sunday, July 01, 2007


I was reading an article called "Simulation Nation" in the magazine Edutopia (published by the George Lucas Educational Foundation). In it, author Marc Prensky writes about why more simulations aren't used in K-12 education. Among his reasons: Lack of sharing. He writes:

In the age of the Internet, it seems logical that when something works for a teacher in one classroom, it should be quickly broadcast to everyone teaching that class or level. But our teachers, for the most part, are terrible at sharing. Those who have success with simulations owe it to their colleagues to post what they do on the Web -- as an HTML page, a Web site, a blog entry, or a video -- available for all to see.

I immediately thought of theatre blogging. We write an enormous amount about our opinions, but we don't often share our discoveries. What works? What doesn't? Wouldn't it be a wonderful learning tool for theatre students everywhere if there were a cache of tips and discoveries from theatre professionals that would give them the benefit of our experience? And if we created a set of tags that we would hold in common, a Delicious search would easily lead them to all the different ideas. Theatre teachers could draw from the posts in constructing their classes, motivated freelancers could deepen their knowledge base without having to rely on college profs.

We've seen the power of the theatrosphere when an idea like the national opening caught fire. Might we also harness that power for educating young people and each other?

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 ...