Thursday, February 21, 2008

On Travis Bedard and Holarchies

Travis Bedard at "Midnight Honesty at Noon" muses about how theatre failed America from "The Left of the Revolution." The post overall is well worth reading in its entirety, and I urge you all to do so -- I have read it a couple of times!

I'd like to focus for a few paragraphs on a couple sentences Travis writes midway through the article: "Our entire universe as understood is indeed nothing but nested taxonomies. Our quarrels are from different branches of the organizational tree."

The novelist, playwright, and essayist Arthur Koestler coined the word "holon" to describe this idea of a nested structure. It, in turn, serves as one of the primary organizing principles of Ken Wilber's thought (see A Brief History of Everything and The Eye of Spirit: An Integral Vision for a World Gone Slightly Mad). I think Wilber most clearly illustrates this concept in terms of language: a single letter is complete in and of itself, AND it is part of a larger structure which encompasses it: a word; a word is complete in itself, AND it is part of a larger whole that encompasses it: a sentence; a sentence is complete in itself, AND is encompassed in a larger structure: a paragraph; and so on. So the holon moves from the most basic unit toward ever more complex units. And the complex units rely upon the simpler units to exist: if there were suddenly no letters, for instance, then every contiguous circle would collapse: no words without letters, for instance. This is known as a holarchy (echoing hierarchy). So far, so good?

Let's apply this model to something else: football, and the nested structure that leads to the NFL (this is somewhat simplified, but you'll get the idea). The first level is represented by high school football teams, where a very large number of young players learn the basic skills to play the game. The next level are the college teams, which are fewer and are comprised of the best of the high school players -- there are still a lot of college football players, but fewer than there were high school players, and the skill level is higher; the next level is the NFL, which is comprised of only a few teams made up of the best of the college players. The key to this development is that at each level the players are playing the same game and being taught the same skills, so that each higher level of complexity can build on the skills developed previously. The holarchy would not function well if, at the high school and college level the players played with the traditional oblong ball, but when they hit the NFL they played with a basketball. There must be continuity to successfully winnow the ranks so that only the best are competing in the NFL.

If we apply this to the theatre, we run into a lot of trouble. The lowest level is again high school, where lots of young actors (we'll focus on actors for the moment) perform mostly in musicals and a few plays. The next level is college, where fewer become theatre majors, and where they perform in a mix of plays (classic, contemporary, musical, perhaps a few new plays) much broader than the first level. Now what? What's the next level? Well, let's assume it is the regional theatres, where an even smaller number of actors are working, and where there is a similar mix of plays to college. Now what? What is the next step? Let's make a controversial step here: the next step, and final destination, is Broadway, where only a very few actors perform. What is the nature of the plays there? The majority are musicals, with a few plays thrown in. In fact, we're back to the high school mix. But here's the problem -- since they left high school, the actors have been playing the game with a different ball! Most of them haven't been honing their musical skills (singing, dancing), but rather learning another game entirely, one involving verse speaking and realistic acting styles. In other words, there is little continuity from holon to holon.

We could do the same thing with other theatrical holons: Off-Off Broadway to Off Broadway to Broadway. Again, the skills developed at one level doesn't really transfer well to the next level "up." However, this latter holarchy lacks the reliance of higher holons on lower: if Off-Off Broadway disappeared, it is doubtful that Broadway would also disappear in a poof, unlike sentences that would disappear if letters disappeared.

All of which is to say this: while theatre people often behave as if each "level" of theatre is a ladder to the next level "up" (with perhaps film thrown into the mix? Beyond Broadway, perhaps?), the fact is that there is no real holarchy, no real ladder that reflects the development of a set of skills. Sure, a Broadway actor is a lot better than a high school actor, but is a Broadway actor in The Lion King better than an actor playing Lear at the Guthrie? Perhaps he is better at singing and dancing, but the Guthrie actor is probably better at verse speaking. The connection is weak.

So a "revolution" such as I am proposing is not really a new level in an existing holarchy. It is not a feeder to the regional theatre scene, for instance, much less Broadway. The skills that would be developed -- acting, yes, but also entrepreneurial skills, community engagement skills, non-hierarchical collaborative skills -- do not feed into that type of organization. In fact, it might be helpful for artists in a theatre I am proposing to think of themselves as a breed apart, and perhaps to find the lower levels of the holarchy less in high school and college students who have honed their skills as performers than in those who were interested in a variety of disciplines -- the interdisciplinary and the unfocused.

To some degree, this may be why I often come across as exclusionary as I describe this new way of doing things. It really doesn't function within the perceived holarchy. Although when you look at the descriptions above, neither does most of the theatre.


Anonymous said...

What your describing isn't so much a holarchy as a tree.

You've got actors that learn the basics (the root skills) in high school, then in college they tend to branch out into classics, musicals, contemporary, absurdist, etc. Once in regional theatres, they (ideally) tend to find the theatres that complement their strengths. The classical actors in college would go on to Shakespeare-oriented theatres, the musical focused actors on to musical theatres, etc.

Where they go from there depends on the job market, I guess.

But I don't see it as a series of concentric circles (or Venn Diagrams, whatever). I view it as more of a tree-like structure. It is inevitable that people will jump from branch to branch, or that branches will merge in the higher echelons of the tree, but still...

Interesting thoughts.

Travis Bedard said...

Is my understanding of what Scott is talking about... am I misimagining your tree?

Scott Walters said...

That is how we imagine the holarchy, I think. But unlike with the football holarchy, the skills learned in each level are not continuous. I'm a bit puzzled by your "stardom" intersection between Broadway plays and Broadway musicals, though...

Travis Bedard said...

I just figure that if you can sing dance and act and you're on Broadway you're in pretty select company.

Chris said...

Seems like Travis' original idea of nested taxonomies suggests a dichotomous structure, as opposed to holarchy, which seems suggest a matrjoschka-like, or ladder-like structure.

The center cannot hold... rah rah. My car has a motor to make it go and tires to roll on. What features does the new theatre paradigm have, I wonder?

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