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How Theatre Artists Become Essential, Part 2

Despite the fairly widespread recognition of great artists as hard workers, the challenge of raising the overall value of theatre artists in the U.S. today is that most Americans just don’t see them as vital to improving daily quality of life.  Whole generations have grown up without rigorous, consistent, or engaging arts education in their schools.  Many producing organizations haven’t helped much, reacting to this problem by spending resources competing for a dwindling core of “connected consumers” rather than working to diversify and expand the pool of those who might be inclined to participate if properly invited.  For any potential participant who starts from this outsider perspective, no amount of “excellence,” and certainly not exchange for high material worth, will sway them to see artists as personally valuable.  Too often we producers place our faith in the “If you build it, they will come” promise of the film Field of Dreams.  But in the case of the vast majority of Americans, no matter how well we build it, they simply won’t come, because they have no idea why what we do matters.

So, what is a theatre artist’s job, exactly, and why does it matter?  It can’t be to entertain.  Entertainment is, and always has been, a commercial endeavor, and as such, to reach the broadest possible audience, confirms what we already know, rather than challenging us.  In fact, the etymology of the word “entertain” points to an attempt to “keep someone in a certain frame of mind.”  Entertainment works best when it conforms to and mirrors our collective thinking.  As a result, raising the value of entertainers is pretty easy, requiring little more than a good marketing plan.

We also have to be careful about re-iterating the old saw that artists matter because they “reflect” our world, our understanding of things, in new ways: this narrative lowers the status of artists, placing them in a re-active rather than pro-active position, and won’t give us a measure of value that we can substantially raise.  Anyway, I think artists DEFINE, rather than reflect, these understandings.  The similarity of the work of artists to that of scientists has been obscured, I think, by the technological explosion of the past century – but it’s useful to compare.  Scientists uncover, characterize, and often employ the basic truths of natural processes, the patterns that underlie our environment.  Thus, scientists matter because they rigorously attempt to shape our evolving understanding of the way the physical world operates.  Scientists become useful when they use this evolved understanding to address real-world problems (like health issues), and their value is raised even in the eyes of people who have no idea exactly what they do or how they do it.  The impact is tangible.

Theatre artists uncover, characterize, and often employ the basic truths of human relationships and the communication that shapes them, the patterns of behavior that underlie our selves.  And of course, these basic truths are in a constant state of change, just like scientific truths.  So theatre can’t rely on our current collective mindset; it has to re-shape it, re-imagine it, expand it.  Theatre artists matter because they rigorously attempt to shape the evolving mindset of the community they want to impact.  And they become useful when they help participants apply this evolved mindset to address real-world problems, from those in personal relationships to those between individuals and their governments.

Before we look at how artists can increase their real-world impact, on the way to mattering more, I have to speak briefly about the word “success,” just to clear a few potential obstacles. First, an artistic project’s “success” lies in the rigor and clarity of the attempt, regardless of the actual impact on the chosen community; both artists and scientists can, and often do, fail to clear the first hurdle, and yet gain critical information and momentum for the next attempt.  Next, an artists’ “success” cannot be held to any outside objective standard; comparing the work of one theatre artist to that of another who has a different community in mind, or a different impact, is apples and oranges.  We can always comment on artists’ “excellence” – whether they were “good” or not – using the commonly defined, oft-disputed standards, but we can only speak to their “success,” to whether or not their work mattered, when we carefully define and measure what they were trying to change, and in whom.  Artists only work so damn hard to become “excellent” so that we will not only be self-satisfied in the rigor of our attempts, but also impactful in their execution.  No artist ever cited great ticket sales as their proudest personal success – we cite the project that actually led people to take concrete actions toward greater justice or more freedom, even if it was only a few, or even one; the project that led to revolutions; that had integrity despite market losses; the project that woke something up.  “Success” for the theatre artist is fundamentally a measure of social profit.

This social profit, the real-world impact a theatre artist can make, has three major phases.  First, simply naming the unnamable can be very important: to identify, put words to, and transform into credible human behavior an impulse our collective mind can’t currently pinpoint because it’s buried deep in our emotional or intellectual or moral core.  When we can see this impulse manifest in a character’s action and language, we can measure it within ourselves.  It’s hugely empowering to finally find the name for a thing you know you have inside you but which you have been unable to seize.

Second, fostering empathy.  Because of the collective nature of the form, when we, the audience, hear an impulse aptly named and recognize it in ourselves, we immediately assume it in others.  In this way, the spark of empathy is generated.  In a flash of insight, we understand how someone who acts very different from us might actually be thinking, or feeling, or believing the same fundamental things.  We realize everyone struggles with the really critical questions of human existence – the ones that really impact quality of life, like how difficult it is to raise your children well, regardless of your race, or class, or historical epoch.  The theatre artist thus builds bridges to humankind throughout history, not to mention between humans from truly different worlds who happen to be in the same room watching.  In that latter regard, theatre fosters active connectivity to the people around us.

Finally, paving the way honest, impactful dialogue on intractable issues.  By revealing the intention behind language in an atmosphere of empathy, theatre artists can help people forge a new vocabulary for discussing problems which were previously un-discuss-able.  Many of the gulfs that exist between us in our daily lives have causes buried so deep in the architecture of our character (for better or worse), that they’re just un-talk-about-able, un-articulate-able – we don’t have a language for even identifying the two sides of the chasm, much less bridging it – and theatre artists help start the conversation by revealing or enabling insights about other people that can form a baseline for the dialogue.  Think about that argument you always have with your partner – you argue about the same old signifiers, you use the same old language, you react to what you think you heard rather than to what the person “actually said” (which is what they say when they mean “what they meant”) and the only way to get past this intractable lock is to talk about the intentions underlying the language.  The same is true in our ongoing struggle to define our own personal values in relationship to those of our peers and our society.  In both areas, theatre artists can provide the critical tools: not answers to our intractable problems, our communicative chasms, but the proper articulation of the real questions we need to ask (what does it specifically mean to be moral on this issue?; what’s the common ground I hold with these people who were raised so differently than I was?).  These tools are especially critical in America, where our seeming starting places are just so far apart, and our current language for discussing our most intractable problems so impoverished and hackneyed and trifling.

Greek theatre artists tried to tackle the problem of striving for an ethical life, the life of purpose, with all it’s myriad challenges; a “good” life of acting on one’s own values without dishonoring those of others.  Shakespeare and his contemporaries tried to explore the shifting political landscape of an urbanizing and democratizing world, seeking a new, more equitable, understanding of power.  Williams, and Miller, Kushner and Hansberry and August Wilson, all the great American writers of the 20th century worked to give voice to that which was unspoken within what Auden called our “normal heart;” to unveil the dreams-deferred that were weighing down our national struggle toward more equity, justice, and freedom for all.  I believe it is incumbent upon today’s theatre-makers to find their place in this continuum: to consider the role of art and artists in our society not primarily from an aesthetic point-of-view, but from a civic one.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson says in his essay Art: “Yet when we have said all our fine things about the arts, we must end with a frank confession, that the arts, as we know them, are but initial. Our best praise is given to what they aimed and promised, not to the actual result. He has conceived meanly of the resources of man, who believes that the best age of production is past…Art has not yet come to its maturity, if it do not put itself abreast with the most potent influences of the world, if it is not practical and moral, if it do not stand in connection with the conscience, if it do not make the poor and uncultivated feel that it addresses them with a voice of lofty cheer. There is higher work for Art than the arts.”  Let’s get to work.


  1. Very well! Spread the word!
    One of the tragic aspects of last years public debate on heavy cuts in the arts funding here in The Netherlands is that these kind of reflections were totally absent. Too much has been taken for granted and even the art institutions just were unable too express their exclusive value.
    In many ways it is politically necessary for the arts now to socially reinvent themselves, explicitly legitimate their mere existence and meaning towards a growing number of ignorant people who tend to confuse arts and entertainment. Let’s hope or better: let’s make sure that schools again help to foster this notion of the grreat individual and social value of the arts.

  2. I have no doubt what you say is true, though I wish there were concrete examples one could point to when discussing this with others who may need a bit more convincing. For instance, it would be very helpful is we could specifically name a previously buried or mistrusted human impulse that was identified and transformed into credible behavior by art (while also naming the work of art that was key to this transformation, of course)?

    • Elizabeth,

      To give you a concrete example, we could use two examples. One being “Waiting for Godot” where two men are waiting for someone to arrive. This anticipation has often come to be interpreted as waiting for a deity to arrive and when he does not the existential philosophy undertones of the play open a discussion in our minds about the existence of any sort of higher being in our world. This play’s roots can be traced back to the godlessness of the Holocaust and the two World Wars with their bloodshed. Another example could be Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesmen” where the American middle class life is put under a microscope for the audience to see, react to, and hopefully change for themselves. Both of these examples could help you with understanding what Russell is getting at.

    • Thanks, Nick, for your examples – Elizabeth, do you mean a tangible example in terms of young people, for example – things that I have seen change due to their participation in an artistic project? Or do you mean something larger in scale than that?

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