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Producorial Responsibility #3: Relevance (Contributing to the National Conversation)


A door is standing open for us.

So often in the American theatre, especially in the last four years, all we hear about, all we feel, is every door is closing. Foundation assets shrinking, donor pocketbooks tightening, earned income competition growing from angles we can’t  control or sometimes even understand, audiences aging.

It’s easy to believe that we are the innocent victims of this “turning away,” perpetrated by the unholy alliance of the economy and the internet, but in truth we are quite complicit.  Again and again in the time that I’ve personally worked professionally in our field, I’ve watched us fail to make a case for ourselves, most notably in the wake of 9/11, when we contributed very little to the national conversation that day provoked. We have failed, as an industry and an ideology, to prove our value to the average American.   Whether we like it or not, we are accountable not only for the quality of our art; we are responsible for the way we are perceived.  And in that arena, we have chosen not to matter to the future of our nation – choosing instead to recycle, recycle, rebrand, to push ourselves in a commercial direction without giving our people the benefits of said commercialism.  If we’re frustrated by the starving-artist stereotype and the patronizing smiles it provokes from our patrons as they jokingly ask “what should I do? – my niece is thinking of becoming an actor!,” then we should stop perpetuating it.  Producers should start paying living wages, and artists should demand no less, and their unions should enforce both.  I personally believe that artists should flatly refuse to work without sufficient compensation, be it in money or in some other tangible form.  If you choose to play the fool, you can’t be mad when people laugh at you.

How have we come to think that somehow we can maintain relevance by “taking a fresh new look” at Rodgers and Hammerstein?  Why have we passively sat on the sidelines watching the public political forums and the Town Halls disappear, letting the public civic debate degenerate into platitudes and black-and-white-thinking and name-calling?  Sure, we didn’t close them, but we also didn’t save them, by investing our own resources and moving them to our stages as they disappeared elsewhere.

We lost our path somewhere along the way and forgot that this is the RESPONSIBILITY that was vested in us by our civil society: that theatre artists and non-commercial producers are supposed to be the ones who FORCE us all to come together and be rigorous and ask questions of our government and challenge ourselves.  The study of aesthetic beauty was vested in the poets and the painters, not in us – no one ever tasked theatre-makers to make “great and enduring and beautiful Art with a capital A.”  How could we, actually? – it’d be a fool’s errand.  Our art lives beyond it’s moment of realization on neither canvas nor parchment – it’s ephemeral, and can’t endure except in the mind and the heart of the listener as their reaction to THIS question on THIS night.  The social pact that gave us value was that we would attack all of the old stories that everyone knew, and mine them for their true meanings and morals, and engage as diverse a community as possible in a debate about what these old stories tell us about our now.  We violate our end of this pact on a nightly basis all across the country, and then wonder why the people we’ve betrayed are not supporting us?

This problem is greatly exacerbated by the fact that as a nation, we have not really defined ourselves and what we stand for in at least 40-60 years – outside of the hollow truisms about freedom, opportunity, and the courage of the first responders that we hear every day in this ramp-up to Election Day.  Would we could better delineate each of those – would we were a nation dedicated to justice, generosity, and courage.  We’re not – we mostly live in enclaves of fear and self-protection, if not flat greed, abusing the system as best we can to stay one tiny half-step ahead of our fellow citizens. A big part of OUR job as theatre-makers is supposed to be to bash in the gates of those enclaves.  But we can’t.  Partly because we’re not brave enough, but partly because when we do demonstrate courage and rigor we are often ignored – because we never made a case for our importance.

We don’t need a national THEATRE in this country, we need a NATIONAL theatre.  We don’t need a new big building or institutional structure as the arbiter of aesthetic taste, we need a way of working that is values-based, community-engaging, and catalyzes or contributes to a rich national conversation about what it means in 2012 to self-identify as “American.”

And we can do it.  But until we’re bringing issues to our stages that actually matter to the average citizen – like the moral complexities of abortion, or reducing gun violence, or managing debt, or empowering social justice on the fronts of race, gender, and sexuality – while simultaneously tackling in our administrative offices the real-life challenges audiences face to participation (like child care or transportation), and re-focusing price points, and putting our resources into building diversity among our artists and audience ACTIVELY, in our schools and less-enfranchised communities EVERY DAY, we’re not going about raising the value of artists or the arts in our society.  We not only have to talk the talk, we have to walk the walk.

As far as the talk goes, that’s our open door.  We are in the midst of Presidential election season.  And everyone is engaged in it.  So take a look at the 4-6 weeks leading up to and including the Presidential election – call it from October 1through November 11.  Block it off in your calendar.  And whatever it is you do artistically during that period, make it something that contributes to a constructive national conversation.

I’m not advocating stumping for a candidate.  And I’m aware that this is a seemingly random time frame – the national conversation, after all, does not ACTUALLY center on the Presidential election.  But as arbitrary a civic event as it may be, it’s the one that EVERYONE in this country actually pays attention to.  If you are not identifying yourself with what is perceived to matter most in this time frame, you will not be asserting your relevance.

If you’re an actor, or a freelance director or designer, only seek or accept work in a project where you are given the chance to contribute something to the dialogue, to use your skills to impact people’s thinking and interaction in the civic forum.  Make art you know will have an impact, or connect a community you care about to the art you’re making in an impactful way.  If you’re a writer, use that time to grapple with a complex and challenging question about our national values, and ideally get it read.

If you’re a producer, program only work that actively and transparently engages audiences in current civic issues, or important questions about what we stand for as a nation, and find ways to engage your audience in the dialogue.  And, for God’s sake, have an education program that connects your programs to the public schools in your community via civic dialogue.

For instance, we at Epic are producing two plays in repertory this Fall, HOLD THESE TRUTHS by Jeanne Sakata and DISPATCHES FROM (A)MENDED AMERICA by Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr. and Brandt Adams.  Both plays are about race in the United States, and specifically how racial self-identification and one’s sense of justice interact, during times of great crisis (such as the Japanese internment during WWII) or great change (the 2008 election of Barack Obama).  Both directly tackle civic issues that matter to the average American; both are followed by great talkbacks (like when former Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal will speak following a performance of HOLD THESE TRUTHS); each will reach hundreds of college students in special group events; and, both will be bracketed by in-school residencies where the artists involved will work with almost 1000 public HS students before and after they see the plays.

For those weeks leading up to the election, take a stand for, and stake claim for, your critical role as a participant in the national conversation.  Contribute, through art, to the dialogue surrounding an event that the average American cares about and engages in, and I think you’ll be surprised how much your value will be raised in the eyes of your community.

Of course, the gut check moment comes with walking the walk.  If you’re an artist, it’s simple, but so so difficult.  You can’t take jobs that don’t value you.  You just can’t.  Insist that you matter, and insist in seeing it reflected in where you do your art, and/or who you reach, and/or how you’re paid for it.  You have to define, announce, and stand by your intrinsic value.

If you’re an artistic leader, do three things right away.

  1. Identify who in your community are the most disenfranchised, the neediest of theatrical participation, and figure out how to serve them with what you consider great art.  The real-deal authentic stuff, not some watered down compromise.
  2. Find a group of artists who want to serve those folks, and pay them at least twice your “standard.”  Your budget is the spine of your organization’s values – so put your money where your mouth is.
  3. Yell loudly that you just did numbers 1 and 2 above.

Re-define “artist value” at your organization in three easy steps.  Trust me, if you’re the right leader, every constituent in your organization, from staff to Board to audiences to donors, will be inspired and re-invigorated and the dedication of resources will be repaid sevenfold.  And when you link this new stance on artist value to content that is both artistically satisfying and impactful in the civic forum, you will be seen for what you undoubtedly are – someone who can elucidate underlying complexities, who can catalyze rich dialogue, who can foster empathy, who can help people find a voice.  That is, someone who is critically important to the future of our nation.

Walk through that door.  It could well close again in December.

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