Saturday, February 19, 2011

In Search of (a Definition of) Excellence

The NEA regularly asserts that its primary criterion for awarding grants is "excellence," and the citizens of the arts world nod in agreement. The peer review panels are instructed to search for excellence in each and every grant proposal, and they do so with confidence that they will recognize that particular quality in each and every variety and permutation, and award pots of money accordingly.

But what does "excellence" mean, really -- what does it look like, what are its characteristics, and as importantly, how is it recognized in advance, since grants are awarded in anticipation of the creation of the piece to be created and delivered. Surely if there is money and support involved, we should be able to agree on a definition without resorting to the old "I know it when I see it" that worked so poorly for identifying pornography.

In practice, it is pretty clear that "excellence" means two things, at least when it comes to giving money to theatres: previous accomplishments and money. And maybe that's as good a definition as any, but I suspect you can see the inherent problem: if you follow that definition, the tendency is to reward the past rather than the future, the old rather than the young, the rich rather than the poor, thems that have rather than thems that hasn't. From my perspective, in an era that is seeing the collapse of interest in the theatre and an increasingly homogeneous audience, perhaps this might be a formula for disaster. This might be a point of agreement between me and the 20UNDER40 folks -- at least, if their ideas are sufficiently disconnected from those of their predecessors (and I confess I haven't seen much evidence of that, but I remain open to surprise).

We also tend to think that "excellence" resides in the work of art -- the production, the painting, the novel, the dance, the performance. It is the work of art itself that is excellent. 

I would propose an alternative definition that changes this. It may not be any better than the current definition, but would lead to the rewarding and funding of a different set of works and people, and perhaps in different places, and that alone might be valuable given the current dilemma. The new definition would be particularly relevant for the performing arts, because of their temporary and transitory nature.

 Excellence exists not in the work of art itself, but rather in the interaction between the work of art and its audience. 

To be regarded as excellent, then, the interaction must be lively and vigorous -- either an energetic enthusiasm or an equally energetic rejection. This definition would not reward the interaction most prevalent in our current theatrical scene: bland, passive acceptance. An institution wouldn't seek to simply grow its audience willy-nilly, but actively seek to build an audience with the kind of people who would respond to its work actively and energetically; artists would be expected to create works of art not that simply demonstrated virtuosity, but rather created the circumstances necessary for combustion to occur. 

To do this, artists would have to come to know their audiences well -- you would no longer simply program whatever was successfully energetic somewhere else, since your audience might be completely different from that audience. In addition, since institutions would be rewarded for the connection between their work and the audience, small theatres could be rewarded as often (or more often) as large, experimental theatres as often (or more often) as mainstream, rural as often (or more often) than urban, young as often (or more often) as established. Suddenly the playing field is level, because interaction is about immediacy.

But, you may ask, how can we measure the interaction, and how could we do so in advance (since grant funding comes in advance of a project). Well, we could do it the same way we do now: guess -- does it sound like it would lead to a vigorous interaction? Would that really be any more difficult, or any less accurate, than guessing in advance whether the work of art will have excellence in it? Probably not, but I don't think it is an effective way of approaching the issue.

Instead, perhaps we need to change the focus of grantmaking from the future to the past. Maybe we need to reward grants retroactively for successful projects that provoked a vigorous interaction that could be measured in many ways -- how many spectators stayed afterwards to discuss the play, for instance? How many were able and willing to write a short paragraph about the ideas in the play, or fill out a survey? How many letters to the editors were written? How many people came more than once to the production, and brought friends? How loud were the laughs? How quiet was the house? How much did the audience interact with the stage? 

As a result of awarding grants retroactively, the leaders of arts organizations would be forced to take risks, and choose productions not that would keep their audience happy, but rather keep them stimulated. It would require a delicate balance between creating work that will attract an audience and making sure that it is the right audience

I believe that the result of this new definition would be an increase in audience size, because the likelihood that theatre would be boring would decrease. It wouldn't be enough to put, say, a decent production of Hamlet onstage -- you'd have to figure out a way to make Hamlet stimulate an active audience response. And if you couldn't figure out how to do that, then you wouldn't be rewarded with funding, simple as that. 

I'm sure there are dozens of reasons why this "won't work," but maybe giving it a shot would shake the theatre out of its somnolent state. Might be worth a try.


Brian said...

I think it's an interesting concept. I don't think you'll be able to convince the NEA to do it on any level, but it definitely has its merits and could theoretically work.

Flloyd Kennedy said...

This is the most sensible Idea I've heard for a very long time. Of course the funding bodies wouldn't take to it, but creators should definitely be inspired to make this their modus operandi. Create work that aims to stimulate and engage, rather than work that attracts funding. If more and more audiences experienced this kind of theatre, the idea of funding it would eventually filter up as the new breed of educators and politicians came through the system. Might take a few generations, but we'd have a lot of fun in the meantime.

Gwydion Suilebhan said...

Good gravy, man, this is the most spectacular thing I've seen in a long time. Thank you for this. I shall now begin to advocate for this very thing.

Pete Miller said...

Our mission at Woolly starts "to ignite an explosive engagement between theatre artists and the community." We're definitely struggling towards the kind of excellence you describe, and, as you mention, we're constantly on the search for ways to measure the blast radius and collect residue. I'm not sure I could endorse what you're writing about and what we're trying to do as the only kind of excellence in theatre, but it's the one I'm most excited about. Thanks for the post.

Think Again: Funding and Budgets in the Arts

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