Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Waiting for Our Obama

Last night, I watched Barack Obama become the leader of our country, and I watched as he inspired thousands in Grant Park, and I looked at the tears in my wife's and my eyes that found echo in those of Jesse Jackson, Oprah Winfrey, and many anonymous viewers in Chicago. When I woke up this morning, I felt a renewed sense of hope, and when I encountered my often-cynical academic colleagues they said "It is a great day to be an American." This wasn't just change we can believe in, it was belief that can change us.

And I asked myself, "Why?" What actual decisions made by a President have an immediate impact on my day-to-day life? In fact, my personal life is more likely to be affected by local politicians making zoning law decisions or decisions about water agreements than anything that happens on the national level. And yet, as I listened to Obama's words of hope for the future and watched his graceful way of being present, I knew that he is the one who will set the bar for America. He is the one who will appeal to our higher angels, who will inspire us to new creativity, who will imbue us with a belief that change is possible and that the world can be saved. He will be an image, an archetype, a single clear note that creates sympathetic vibrations in the souls of citizens.

And I found myself longing for a leader for the theatre. Someone who could do the same thing for a group of theatre artists scattered around the country who might find inspiration, courage, focus, and determination from a figure who could paint a picture of our higher purpose that would lead us creatively forward. The President isn't the only voice heard in America -- our system of checks and balances and our the loyal opposition assures that wisdom will arise through multiple perspectives, a wisdom that is enriched by the diversity of viewpoints. But the President sets an agenda and chooses the key in which many will sing. And I wonder who provides that vision for theatre artists. Who do we look to to sound a call, to set the key, to point the direction? Perhaps the head of TCG, but I am sorry to say that TCG is not filling a leadership role, but rather sees itself as one of the cheerleaders.

I think we in the arts need our own Barack Obama. Not a dictator who squashes creative diversity, but someone with need a powerful vision that we can line ourselves up in relation to, a person whose ideas we can enrich with our own perspectives, a person with a resonant voice that we can harmonize with. Someone who can say "Yes we can" in a way that makes us think maybe we could.

And so I ask you: when you think about leaders in the theatre, who might be such a person? Who might be our Obama?
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Ben Turk said...

Leadership is a farce, and to quote the play i'm currently producing: "hope is what you do when you're stoo scared to act" or too lazy.

I'm much more proud of my affiliation with a decentralized group of theatre artists struggling with "business models, marketing, fundraising, job searching, and the day-to-day trials of life" than i would be of an association with the chanting and flag waving liminal masses who only participate symbolically once every four years.

Scott Walters said...

Well, obviously I disagree. Leadership does not negate individual action. However, it can empower individual action by making it part of something larger than the individual. I believe that there is a universal longing for people to be part of something larger than themselves, and I do not resent those individuals whose gifts include the power to inspire.

anonymous said...

I agree. The right leader can focus all those disparate energies and efforts into a collective effort where something can actually get done. Affect a global change in a broken system. But how to thrust that person into the community's collective conscience? Wouldn't it be great if this person was in charge of the NEA?

Freeman said...

Fine, fine! I'll do it!

Scott Walters said...

Good! You start tomorrow at 8:00 sharp.

Nick Keenan said...

Thank god. I was waiting for someone to nominate Freeman. That dude can COOK.

In all honesty, I think the best option here might be to contact to the new administrators of Obama's NEA and other arts-related administrations. And give them our good ideas. And help them implement them.

I mean, seriously, have you READ this? It's amazing: Partnerships between Schools and Arts organizations through the Dept. of Education, a City-Year-modeled Artist Corps, and a sympathetic president, International Cultural Diplomacy, Health Care for Artists, and a revision of the tax code to support artist's unusual business expenses.

His plan is already really solid, and all it needs is people to implement it on a granular level. People like all the theaters in this country. Us.

Why seek another leader? We just elected one, and now our job is to make sure his promises to the arts get done - even if it means we find ways of doing and funding them.

Ben Turk said...


The NEA? You guys really want to link theatre's future to dependency on government funding? Isn't that kind of what got the theatre medium into the bloated mismanaged mess it is today? And do you seriously not envision the pendumlum swinging back and right wingers pulling the bottom out on the arts again?

Seriously, what happened to the tribal model?

Scott Walters said...

Rex -- We're talking about two different things. Yes, the tribal model is good for the creation of theatre. The question is about focusing and leading a larger dialogue about issues confronting the arts. As long as we are a Tower of Babel of individuals yammering about whatever happens to come into their minds (like, say, the theatrosphere), the less likely we are to actually move anything forward. We're talking about leadership. And I do not share your anarchistic leanings -- I think we need a strong voice to give us something to focus on.

Tony Adams said...

Rex I'd have to disagree as well. The NEA didn't get us into any mess. A lack of true leadership did. And yes even tribes need leadership to succeed.

Ben Turk said...

Yes, tribes need leaders, but it's a radically different kind of leadership, and to say that something as centralized, powerful and distanced as the president of the united states is a viable or relevant model of tribal leadership completely dilutes that distinction.

and easy government money breeds dependency. That dependency makes good leadership unnecessary, and tribal type leadership won't do well in a theatre world defined by top-down funding like the NEA's.

You don't have to be an anarchist to see a distinction between a grassroots theatre movement, growing out of passionate people committed to their art, and a government funded theatre world, where those people's passion is channelled according to where the money wants to go, not where the art needs to go.

If i'm speaking too forcefully, i appologize, but i just hate to see Obama's victory as a force for complacency, instead of a force for change.

Scott Walters said...

What is interesting about your rejection of top-down NEA funding (a rejection that I largely support, by the way) is that -- and brace yourself, Rex, you're gonna hate this -- going completely market-based sans government intervention might be a way to make sure that the art goes where the art "needs to go," or at least where the art is most wanted. And if we could create a business model (like the tribe) that could exist on a basis of voluntary simplicity, then perhaps the art could more easily go into smaller markets where the arts "need to go" but where they haven't gone in the past because there didn't seem to be a "big enough" audience to pay a certain wage.

Tony Adams said...

Wait are those extremes mutually exclusive? Since when can't grassroots movements have the support of government/policy?

Actually, I'd be interested to hear of any example of successful, meaningful change that was brought about without having both at some point.

Rex, how is leadership a farce if even tribes and grassroots groups need leaders too? Or do different bodies just need different types of leadership?

Ben Turk said...

Different bodies do need different types of leaders, and the leadership Obama exemplifies is a farce.

Scott - i do not catagorically reject all market-based systems, and I definitely prefer them to patronage or statist systems. I'd like to see theatre get where music currently is. What i mean by that is the big market capitalist music machine is being steadily eroded by tiny DIY artists, who still function under market pressures, but a small grassroots market, one that values art, connection and uniqueness over profit.

and, yes, Tony,everyone can have a role in it, but right now theatre is still dominated by institutions addicted to NEA funding, inspite of a 20 year dry spell.

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 ...