Is This A Movement

November 11, 2011

This week I am in Putney Vermont at Sandglass Theatre on an NPN Residency. Putney is small- about 2,000 people. I’ve taught at five different schools, from middle school to college, and I run into students from each class every time I buy bread at the Co-op. There’s a nice sense of community.

Transition Putney asked me to speak last night. It’s a group aiming to build resilient communities. Stronger communities, really- as they face oil depletion, unemployment, business collapse and so on… the question was posed “can the arts foster a more resilient community?”

I fielded numerous questions and responded as well as possible. And we touched on a lot…

1. Theater spends too much time telling people it’s valuable than showing it.
Very often I receive a meme that goes out that is a speech or a bullet point on why theater is necessary. I usually receive it from a person already working in theater (and less often from someone who simply goes to theater, and never from someone who has nothing to do with theater). It’s usually inspiring and a rallying call and reaches to an idea of global citizenry and the necessity of stories (which I’ll touch on in #2). Many communities do the same thing, small towns and on- people speak about how the community (or unions or taxes or so on) are important and necessary but don’t go to the truly important step, demonstrating how they are. Theaters say “we’re important, come to us.” Where they need to value their audience just as much and reach out to them. Possibly, it’s years of explaining to our unimpressed uncle over family dinners that what we do is as valuable as working in an office somewhere that we need these meme’s more for ourselves than four our audience. Like a daily affirmation. Needless to say we need less memes. We need more action.

2. The Importance of Storytelling.
How do we create this necessity in the community? We value the power of not only our own stories but the stories around us. I have worked in prisons and done stories for NPR and no matter how amazing a person’s love story across continents was or their battle to read and reconnect with their children from behind bars I have heard the same thing “You really think anyone is going to care about what I am telling you right now?” Yes. We are all the stars of our own movies and the truth is- we typically think our movie sucks. We devalue our experience in the presence of others. How then does theater instill the confidence in a community to speak and have discourse? Can they do workshops in the community to free these voices? Should each theater around the country have an investigative wing that does work based solely in their community? As artists we sometimes believe WE ARE THE STORYTELLERS. The world tells us the story- we focus it. We steal blatantly from conversations with family members, from things overheard on the street, to the visual stories we see at the bus stop. Like in example one we often give ourselves an overcompensation of importance. That we are the End and Means. We are at our best and most honest a conduit.

3. Theater as Education.
I have worked at many theaters, visited numerous others and most theater education is, well, not good. Many grants received for theater education have a fraction given to the ed. department and the rest goes elsewhere. Then actors and directors who would never work on that theaters mainstage are hired and a script cut from numerous other plays or written by a playwright the theater wouldn’t hire is put together and toured. It is usually an afterthought for anyone not in the education department. What many theaters don’t realize is their education department is really a stealth development department. It develops and builds audience from the students reached and their teachers and beyond. It is your most public wing because, sadly, for many theaters it is the main amount of time that your work goes out into the community without the community coming to you. Why would you not treat it as such? At Working Group we are working with Hancher Auditorium on a new model that has sent me into multiple classrooms (none of them theater- so: aged learning, history, sociology, psychology and more) and has sough to interweave my performances, with current interviews i’ve done and my general experience to the professor’s lecture to create a seamless mode by which the students have their lesson plan demonstrated and truly brought to life. It’s some of the most exciting work i’ve done because as many of the memes I mentioned purport to do it gives a true validation and vitality to the work I have committed myself to.

4. Have A Life.
Or get a life.I was asked last night “You moved from NY to Iowa on purpose! To be an artist! It seems crazy. Do you see other artists doing that? Is this a movement?” My response was “if not, it will be.” I talked about the explosion of MFA’S and the awful, misguided by professors in those programs around the country to steer their students directly towards NY, with no mind toward the individual or basic reality. There are thousands of communities around the country that need, could use and will support artists to greater effort, which, will only make the art that is created better. NY as always bitched about is pointed to as where you need to go t have a career. But that’s changing. If you have good work and an email account you can go anywhere. Trust me. And you can have a life, in a community. In NY my community of friends and people I spent all my “social” time with was made up of actors and playwrights and directors and that was just awful. We talked only about theater and our opinions on theater and what theater we were making or auditioning for and it was so completely insular. It had nothing to do with our neighborhoods in Washington Heights or Bushwick or wherever… and sorry, for me there was nothing vital about it. I needed a meme after those conversations (and i love my artist friends but I hope to reflect the whole world not just the theater one).

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Sharon May 15, 2012 at 2:54 pm

Thanks for sharing. I worked in theater education for 25 years in three different cities and countless theaters. As I read your post, I was nodding my head so much, I thought it was going to fall off. Oy. I once worked in a theater (a quite famous one which shall forever remain nameless) where the IT guy told me he thought they should list the education department as a major funder of the mainstage perfomrances because every grant ever written highlighted what we did in education. I support your work in Iowa as I support all artists working in all communities IN community. Best of luck.

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John B. May 17, 2012 at 4:52 pm

Sharon–interesting, because I had the opposite reaction to #3. As a grantwriter for a theatre, I challenge the assertion that “Many grants received for theater education have a fraction given to the ed. department and the rest goes elsewhere. ” To misappropriate grant funds in this manner is unethical and–in most cases–illegal. If a grant is earmarked for an education program, the money received must be used for that program, period, unless the donating organization/individual has specifically indicated otherwise (which is seldom the case).

Now, it is true that some education programs’ budgets do not solely rest with the education department (for example, money allocated to the construction of scenery for an educational touring show would go to the production department to offset those expenses in keeping with the budget), but all of it must go towards the purpose for which it is allocated. I don’t get the sense, however, that this is to what you refer.

I will agree that when asking for general operating support (i.e. unallocated funds), theatres tend to highlight their education programs, which are often a small piece of the overall pie. However, this is not the same thing as “a grant for theatre education.” It’s a grant to the organization in total and can be spent as such.

If you know of any theatres engaging in unethical cooking of the books, I encourage you to report them. The grant money they’re misusing could go to upstanding theatres (like mine!).

I agree with your points #1 and #4.

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Lauren February 19, 2014 at 12:46 pm

Randomly, about 2 years after the fact, I’m reading this post because I saved the email thread about audience development on Thomas Cott’s you’ve Cott’s mail digest… Sifting through my inbox has come at just the right time. So validating to hear these very true words about education departments in particular, but also about the value of theater outside of NY, and a connected life outside of NY. thank you!!

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