Thursday, June 23, 2011

Why Bringing the Arts Back Home Is So Important

"Theatre, like all other forms of cultural expression, used to be ordinary people singing, dancing, telling stories. This is the way a living community recorded and celebrated its victories, defeats, joys, fears. As the Cartesian or mechanistic model took root, and later as colonialism spread across the planet,. coinciding with the mechanization of capitalism, this primal activity of storytelling also evolved in a mechanistic way. Like many other  things we can think of, cultural activity became commodified. It transformed from something people did naturally, "in community", into a manufactured consumer product. Today a vast majority of people buy theatre, buy dance, buy paintings, buy books, buy movies; the list goes on and on. We now pay strangers to tell us stories about strangers. But when do we use the symbolic language of theatre, dance, etc., to tell our own stories about our collective selves?

What is the result of a living community's inability to use primal language to tell its own stories? Alienation, violence, self-destructive behaviour on a global level. Living communities have fallen into a stupor, hypnotized by a steady diet of manufactured culture."

David Diamond, Theatre for Living: The Art and Science of Community-Based Dialogue

More on Participation

So apparently WolfBrown is doing a study on participatory arts -- Ian at Createquity has the details, but WolfBrown defines what they mean: "In this case, “active” means that the participant is involved to some extent in creative expression (i.e., creating or performing)." Ian thought it might be a good thing to crowdsource. So let's see what people consider "active participation":
  • Unsilent Night, where "composer Phil Kline's free outdoor participatory sound sculpture of many individual parts, recorded on cassettes, CD's and mp3's, and played through a roving swarm of boomboxes carried through city streets every December.  People bring their own boomboxes and drift peacefully through a cloud of sound which is different from every listener's perspective.
  • All Raise This BarnAll Raise This Barn (East) is a "group-designed and assembled public structure created in response to a public vote by the Rensselaer campus and local community. Using a commercially available barn-making kit as the starting point, online voting determines architectural, aesthetic, and labor choices, as well as whether the assembly is collaborative or competitive."
  • Takes by the Nicole Canuso Dance Company. "Within a large cube wrapped in semi-transparent screens two dancers perform fragments from their lives. Captured by multiple video cameras, their actions are woven into an elaborate reel of "takes," and projected back onto the screens as large black-and-white films. At turns hypnotic, visceral, and intimate, TAKES creates multiple layers of visual movement between the performers and their projected selves, weaving into the present what they thought they had left behind. TAKES captures the full intensity of how past moments live within us and how they intercede with the present. Viewable from 360 degrees, the audience is invited to move around and shift perspective during the show.
  • Random Acts of Culture,"brings fine art to the population and breaks down barriers that prevent consistent engagement in the arts."
  • Artistic Rebuttal Book, "in artistic fashion, I want to make a book full of rebuttals to the “art is worthless” debate. That is to say, a book full of “Oh yeah! Art is worthless? Take this!” But with a bit more research and validity, of course :)"
  • "Song of Houston: East +West will explore the stories of first- and second-generation immigrants to Houston from all over the East, starting with the Chinese community," said Anthony Freud, general director and CEO of Houston Grand Opera. The project will continue through 2014 and is expected to commission a series of nine chamber operas. “As its name implies, Song of Houston is deeply rooted in the cultures of all those for whom Houston is home, and will generate fresh, relevant, exciting new operas by important composers and librettists. We are passionate about collaborating meaningfully with communities throughout our city," said Freud.
I have a feeling that WolfBrown's main research result may be discovering that people in the arts have no idea what "participatory" means, even if you define it clearly. Participation in creative expression isn't letting spectators carry a boom box around, or move around during the production, or vote on what color your barn is going to be, or be present when you deliver "fine art" to them in a non-traditional venue, or serve as the subject of your commissioned work. It means actively participating in creative expression. It means sharing the ownership of the artistic process. It means it isn't about you, the artist. It means using your own skills as an artist to facilitate the expression of others.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


In a section entitled "Participation" in And Then, You Act: Making Art in an Unpredictable World, Anne Bogart writes:
In our present climate, it is more useful to look for participants rather than spectators. We live in a culture that encourages passive spectatorship, and there is certainly enough spectatorship to go around. The nightmare of our society right now is submissive consumption: people watching their lives go by, watching the government drift by with the assumption that a citizen's only job is to be a good audience. The theater can offer and alternative to passive spectatorship. It excels in qualities that make for real democracy.
So far, so good. I'm cheering Anne on! Then she describes what she means:
I met a young woman who worked as an intern for Pepsico Summerfare, a performing-arts festival in Purchase, New York (about forty minutes north of Manhattan), which brought world-class performeances to local audiences during the 1980s. She described "The Beethoven Experience," a weekend where several thousand people came to spend two days immersed in the world of Beethoven and his Ninth Symphony. One of her jobs was to photocopy 2,000 copies of the "Ode to Joy" chorus. During the weekend, audiences attended symposia, lectures, and exhibition, and open rehearsals, all relating to Beethoven's life and the composition and performance of his Ninth Symphony. She described a rehearsal open to the public where the conductor took time to explain to the audience what he was after with the orchestra. During one particular moment of the symphony he showed how he calls on the string section for more intensity. The weekend concluded with a final performance of the Ninth Symphony. When the orchestra arrived at that particular passage, and the conductor called for more intensity from the string section, the young woman said that the entire audience leaned forward simultaneously. "That's it!" I cried, when I heard the description of the audience leaning forward as one. This is participation!
NO IT ISN'T! That's involvement, perhaps, but it sure as hell ain't participation. This is the problem we have when we talk about audience participation -- we're so used to audience dozing during our productions, or mechanically responding on cue, that we think sitting forward is participation. Or we think participating in a Facebook page or a twitter discussion is participation.

But it is a step better than the NEA's definition of arts participation as buying a ticket...

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Swimming for Shore

Over at A Poor Player, my friend Tom Loughlin describes his sense of being "theatrically depressed" (not personally depressed), and of struggling to stay afloat in the sea of Entertainment, Inc. As someone only a few years younger than Tom, I certainly recognize the issues with which he is wrestling. What's the old joke about middle age being the time when you've climbed to the top of the ladder only to find it is leaning against the wrong wall? Har har. It is particularly difficult to face these questions as a professor, because in order to do our jobs well we must, well, profess -- we must believe in what we do enough to set an example for our students. And given the state of the American theatre, this is difficult for anyone who is thoughtful.

But what I find poignant about Tom's musings is that he doesn't really seem to be saying "I made the wrong choice," but rather that theatre made the wrong choice. And that is a statement of anger and frustration, not depression. In the midst of all the blogs and workshops and speeches and conferences talking about marketing and social media and the press and audience surveys and diversity and tinkering around on the edges of the theatre, Tom is saying no, it's not good enough, we have been sucked into the quicksand that is Corporate America, and our struggles only make us sink deeper.

To a large degree, I agree with Tom, although I don't end up in quite the same place as he does -- perhaps it's only a different atoll, I don't know.

Tom reaches the following conclusion: "Theatre is culturally insignificant. You can put any sort of spin on it you’d like to make it appear this is not so and thus offer some hope, but at the end of the day the numbers bear out the reality that theatre is an insignificant art form in the 21st century, and will be for some time to come." Hard to disagree with this. For the vast majority, theatre doesn't even register on the radar.

Where Tom and I part company is that Tom cares about cultural significance, and I don't. I am not concerned with affecting the American culture at large, which has become so superficial, so materialistic, so disconnected that I can no longer stand it. I don't own a TV, because I can't take the corporate nonsense that passes for entertainment. I rarely go to movies for the same reason -- I find the younger bloggers' rhapsodic discussions of movies based on comic books beyond absurd. Music? Not so much. Bestselling books? Rarely. My level of disgust is almost complete. What John Stewart said about the media in his recent interview with Chris Wallace encapsulates my attitude about the culture as a whole: "The bias of the media is towards laziness, conflict, and sensationalism." Ditto the whole damn culture.

And so my response is not to despair, but rather to leave the national scene alone, focusing instead on small towns and rural areas where I believe there is still a chance of disconnecting from the corruption of the national scene. This is why I react (as Trisha Mead predicted on Twitter, calling it Walt828 bait") so strongly to Richard Florida's nonsense about the so-called "creative class" as it surfaces in conferences like one in Ontario described in an article called "Experts Herald Creative Sector as Key," which begins: "Attracting "a creative class of workers" will be key to future economic success of rural economies in eastern Ontario, a conference on rural economic development was told on Tuesday." The assembled experts opined that what rural Canada really needs are more city people to move to rural areas. I can't even bear to summarize the article, which makes me so angry I can hardly see straight. Here is the kind of nonsense these experts have to offer... with commentary:

While the creative class has traditionally lived in cities, [Jeff ]Dixon [assistant director at the Monieson Centre in Queen's University School of Business] said, technology and infrastructure are making it possible for them to relocate to rural places while remaining at the cutting edge of their medium.... [Cue the urban cavalry.]
Dixon also said the government is investing in and developing new programs in education, "because you do need more specialized education to do these jobs." [And we couldn't possibly imagine that people who actually already live in rural areas might be capable of such education.] 
Dan Taylor is an economic developer in Peterborough who worked in Prince Edward County for a decade, recruiting "a creative labour force" — culinary artists, masters students, doctors and starving artists....[Sheesh.]
Peter Kenyon is an Australian "social capitalist" who specializes in stimulating economic renewal in rural communities....He said small creative communities need leadership and organization from their artisan and business associations, which often act as a driving force above and beyond municipal governments, organizing events and forging working partnerships.
[The following story is incredible.]
He told the story of a Western Australian community of 5,000 residents, called Margaret River.It was established by 100 European families after the First World War, he said, recruited to clear the land and set up a dairy farming community.The settlers didn't know much about farming, and the community more or less failed after the Great Depression. Many families, he said, were simply forced to walk away from the land, and those who stayed lived for the most part in poverty, into the 1960s. 
It was then that a young generation of surfers and "alternative lifestylists" moved to Margaret River, he said, taking advantage of the white sand beach and cheap property values. [You've got to be kidding.]
They were soon followed by a group of wealthy doctors, who Kenyon said realized the wine-making potential of the area, and established its first vineyards.
The artistic youngsters and the vineyard owners developed partnerships, Kenyon said, co-developing their community to "offer a really exciting experience."
Today, Margaret River attracts two million visitors a year, he said — people drawn to the cultural hub of artisans, culinary experts and wine connoisseurs.
Famous niche artists live there now, he said, including cabinet designer JahRoc, which sells $35,000 custom dining room suites, and violin maker Scott Wise, whose clients wait 18 months for his service...
Argh! Really? the goal is to become a community for rip-off cabinet makers who service the upper class robber barons???

Let me make this very clear: rural and small communities don't need your stinking advice. It's experts such as these that recommended that what was needed was industrial agriculture -- as Earl Butz said in the 1970s, "get big or get out" -- and the result is that you can't buy a vegetable or a fruit in a grocery store that has any taste or nutrition, that isn't soaked in oil and chemicals, and hasn't come into existence by destroying the land from which it has been untimely ripped. And now a new generation of "experts" want to deliver the coup de grace and turn small and rual communities into mini-cities with trees, filled with upper-middle-class refugees from the city.

 I say no. Patrick Overton, in his inspiring book Rebuilding the Front Porch of America, writes powerfully about what he calls "rural genius."
"We need to realize the deep hunger people have to become 'makers' again. We have become a nation of consumers, a people defined by the consumption of things made by others. As a result, we have littl erelationship between the things we use/consume and the people who make them. This has created a market-place, commodity-based society. We have also lost our contact with the earth and the environment around us. Someone else does the farming, the growing. We have become disconnected from the agricultural tradition that historically defined many of our rural and small communities. Some believe this is one of the reasons we are facing the current ecological crisis. When we moved from an agrarian society to an industrial age, we set in motion an alienation from that which has provided sustenance and meaning for centuries -- the land. We are now beginning to experience the full impact of this loss of relationship with our environment. People are beginning to realize they miss growing things, they miss making things.
 I have lost interest in trying to change our national culture. I am disconnecting from it as much as possible, and planning to move to a town with a population of 357 where people still have a connection to the land, still know how to make things and not just buy them, still know each other. And while I am moving from a larger town of 75,000 or so, and have a doctorate, I do not come with the attitude that I am coming to show them how to do things "right," but rather to relearn how to do things more organically. And while I am there, and while I am working with other small communities through CRADLE, I will continue to promote the importance of "rural genius" as an alternative to our abysmal national culture.

Tom, I feel you, my friend, but I can't just wait to be pulled down by the undertow. I'm swimming for shore.

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 ...