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An Introduction to Producorial Responsibilities

 

For theatre artists to matter in America, for them to exercise their core skills like fostering empathy and to paving the way for honest and impactful dialogue, organizations that produce theatre have to matter.  Simple enough, right?

 

But this may well be a somewhat-stickier-wicket than making sure artists matter!  Because for it to happen, these organizations will have to dedicate energy and resources to active participation in our burgeoning national conversation about what it means ethically to be an American.  And as a direct result, deeply-held, organizationally-defining concepts like “artistic integrity” and “market competitiveness” may need to be re-calibrated, or forced to take a second chair to the primacy of community participation and service.

Because if we want to matter to the average American, we have to make art that looks deeply at what we stand for as Americans: what unites us, and what divides us.  We have to bring our particular strengths to the way the conversation is structured and conducted, and who is present, and how people are made ready to join in.  We have many essential jobs to do to help this conversation take place and be fruitful: from naming the unnamable and giving clarity to the intractable, to giving a voice to the voiceless and a public forum to those who did not realize they were forum-less.

Now, there are two immediate and very unfortunate obstacles:

  • One national conversation that we are definitely NOT having in this country as a whole is the one about aesthetics, and what defines us aesthetically as Americans.  Arguably, we should, given that we’ve exported our prefabricated store-in-a-box aesthetics of convenience to communities all over the world, many of whom have now adopted it as their own.  But we’re not.  And we as theatre artists and producers are not in a position to start this conversation (with anyone but ourselves).  Which is too bad for us, because it’s one of the things we’re really good at talking about – it’s way within our comfort zone and our core competency.  Once we matter to more people, maybe we can start that dialogue.  But until then, we’re going to have to integrate into what’s already on the table.
  • Which brings up unfortunate obstacle #2, which is that we have to recognize that the civic dialogue of this country, by which I mean the way in which we arrive at national laws, policies, and norms, is fundamentally broken.  Very few Americans, on any side of the political spectrum, feel that their voices are heard, that their needs are recognized or accounted for, or that the ethics and new social norms that they live by in their daily lives are aligned with our laws or civic procedures.  What dialogue is happening around these issues occurs among a small group of fairly homogenous folks, and as such, it’s not really a national conversation at all.

The good news, though, is that we as theatrical producers are well positioned to help change this, because of the particular strengths that our artists possess that make them essential.  Our primary assets can reach people who are otherwise pretty unreachable, and build the emotional and rational paths that encourage their participation – in conversations that we can actually generate, quite excitingly, through our art.  We can take the following four strategic steps, which I have collectively grouped under the heading “Producorial Responsibilities,” each of which I will talk about in sequence over the next few installments of this blog:

  • We have to get a truly diverse, representative group of Americans into our theatres to have the conversation, whatever it may be – which we’ll call “Producorial Responsibility #1: Artist & Audience Diversity”;
  • We have to prepare young people to responsibly and impactfully engage in the conversation and make their voices heard, called “Producorial Responsibility #2: Arts Education”;*
  • We have to actively encourage the development of theatrical material and participatory audience contexts that enrich the conversation, or “Producorial Responsibility #3: Making Art With Civic Impact”; and,
  • We have to grow our local contributions to the conversation from our theatres and schools up to the national level by using social media and empowering outside-of-sector partners, also known as “Producorial Responsibility #4: Reaching Beyond Our Reach.”

*In truth, artist/audience diversity and arts education go so hand-in-hand that trying to talk about them separately is a chicken-egg problem: you can’t conduct impactful arts education without artist diversity, nor can you create a sustainably diverse theatre without consistent arts education.

Just so we’re clear, I’m not saying that theatre can – or should try to – singlehandedly “change the world.”  As Scottish theatre-maker John McGrath put it: “The theatre can never cause a social change.  It can articulate the pressures towards one, help people to articulate their strengths and maybe build their self-confidence…it can be the way people can find their voice, their solidarity, and their collective determination.”  It’s not important to bother trying to change what people believe – but we CAN change how they define, and talk about, their beliefs.  And we can change their level of access to, interaction with, and level of empathy for people with other beliefs.  And we can change who this “they” even is – who is in our audience and company – joining and shaping the conversation in the first place.

Here’s a framing question for both producers and artists to consider before my first installment on our responsibilities apropos of diversity, coming tomorrow:  Do we aspire to embrace our true American audience, which is of necessity as diverse as we CAN reach – many of whom don’t yet even know they need or want us?  Or, do prefer instead to keep competing for the attentions of a tiny pool of generally homogenous cognoscenti?

Or frame it as: do we want to change minds, or reinforce deeply held assumptions?  Or: do we want to join – hell, even lead – national conversations that will help shape the future of our country and make us seem essential to the average American?

Do we want to matter?

 

Comments

  1. Merlca Whitehall says

    Hi Ron, Thanks for writing! A question about Producorial Imperatives: Does the need for Producorial Imperative #1: Artist and Audience Diversity relate in any manner to the disproportionate lack of diverse representation in arts leadership and the organizational decision-makers?

    • I think it absolutely does. One of the biggest challenges facing the American theatre today, I believe, is what you precisely and correctly cite as the “disproportionality” of this lack. We at Epic serve a total audience each year, from our in-school, after-school, community, new play development, and production work combined, that is closing in on 50% persons of color. And yet our organizational leadership structure is 100% white. We have been very very fortunate to find and empower many staff members and artists of color who we successfully encourage to give us their thoughts and advice freely and often, that have helped us put in place policies and practices that encourage participation by persons of color (as well as persons who use wheelchairs, persons of diverse ages, etc….). So we set a tone, and we listen to our people, but that’s not the same as being led by executives who directly identify with and represent the needs and wants of a maximally-diverse potential audience. So we’re working on this challenge internally. But I fear that most organizations neither set the tone nor ask the right questions because they are not quite as self-aware of the problem of non-representation – maybe I’m wrong, maybe everyone is busting their ass on this issue, but I don’t get that sense, in my limited experience with other producers.

      One thing we ARE doing that is extremely pro-active is that we’ve just received a 5-year grant to build new, extremely rigorous, multi-year “ARTS LEADERSHIP MENTORSHIP PROGRAM,” called “Epic NEXT,” that will lead select students through a multi-year training program in artistic, social, and leadership skill development working closely with both “Project-Mentors,” who focus on the students’ development as artists, specifically their reflective practice and it’s impact on artistic development, and “Program-Mentors,” who oversee student academic, social, and collegiate progress over three years. We’ll be talking about this program more very soon (the pilot is in August, after which we’ll be refining and then promoting it), but the primary goal is not to build future artists as much as it is to build future arts LEADERS (including those who lead as organizational decision-makers) who represent the communities we wish most to serve – who are persons of color, who come from economically-disadvantaged backgrounds, who grew up in arts-poor communities, etc…We want to build a new generation of leaders (we’ll serve 80-100 young people just in this first 5-year cycle) who are committed to making work that is intentionally accessible to these kinds of communities, and making sure the members of those communities have an impact on what kind of art they are being offered.

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