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This blog takes a Transcendentalist’s approach to the way non-commercial theatre is produced in America today, applying Ralph Waldo Emerson’s assertion that “the hand can never execute anything higher than the character can inspire” as a challenge to the way we as producers work.  The Transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau attempted to counteract a growing conformity and reliance on institutions that they believed dispersed individual self-reliance and personal ethical accountability for the actions of their society.  This blog, likewise, asserts a moral imperative in the American theatre: that we stand for what is right and good, rather than what is expedient because it’s what everyone else is doing.

Right now, we producers operate largely according to a “Scarcity Principle,” believing at base that everything we do is burdened by a lack: not enough audiences, not enough monies coming in from governments and foundations, not enough “high-quality” artists; not strong enough training programs.  We producers blame endemic problems like the lack of diversity on our stages on everyone but ourselves.  We de-value our own artists in service of a barely-disguised profit motive.  We rabidly compete for a “connected few” audience members, rather than working to increase demand.  We screech about reductions in government funding – justifiably – but then do nothing at all to raise the value of our work among the average American taxpayer.  We assume our importance.  We assume shared values.  We assume, we assume, we assume.

This blog proffers an either/or proposition for producers:

  1. EITHER, start acting as if you’re blessed with an unrecognized abundance: millions of potential audiences who would be inclined to participate if you extend the invitation properly; eager young people throughout your community desperately desiring and needing theatre in their schools; a diverse panoply of artists ready, willing, and able to raise their own value through the work of their own hands; vast wells of funding lying untapped – ok, that last one is an exaggeration, but let’s just try abundance, instead of scarcity.  Try working together with your peers, rather than competing.  Try taking an active, daily, budgetary stand for unity, diversity, and community.
  2. OR, if you believe the above scarcities are true, if they are real constraints that are hindering your work and reducing your capacity, THEN GO FIX THEM.  It’s on you.  Don’t hide behind anyone or anything, certainly not the hackneyed meaningless phrase “art for art’s sake” or any of it’s million offspring that merely comfort us that we matter in the life of the average American, that we are actively contributing to the great American promise of liberty in diversity, despite every proof to the contrary.

Act, in your work, according to the personal ethics you judge any other business by. Open your imagination to “what could be,” or take action against the obstacles.  Don’t hide behind conformity, or what you know in your ethical soul to be a broken means of production.  As Thoreau says in Civil Disobedience: “If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine…let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth—certainly the machine will wear out…if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say…let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.”

an ArtsJournal blog