A Dream Team of Disciplines
Can NPAC's ambitious agenda for action make a difference? That all depends on a less-than-perfect union of performing arts constuencies.
By Jim O'Quinn
Politics is about concentrating power...and art is about dispersing it.
—multidisciplinary artist Paul Chan, quoted by Calvin Tomkins in the New Yorker
Art was its ostensible subject, but this summer’s giant National Performing Arts Convention in Denver wasn’t really an arts meeting. Some actual art stopped by to visit, but it was subsumed, inevitably and immediately, into a web of conversations and agendas constructed for action, not contemplation. For all the talk among NPAC’s more than 3,500 diverse delegates about artistry and creativity, what these conventioneers mainly had on their minds was politics.
In that sense, the landmark June 10–14 amalgam of performance disciplines—theatre, dance, music, opera—was a fitting precursor to the Democratic National Convention, which was due to invade the Mile High City’s downtown grid of skyscrapers and cultural palaces some two months after the teeming NPAC arts contingent took its leave.
It could even be argued that the arts folks had a broader and deeper view of what “politics” means than would delegates to the DNC, whose mission in Denver would be little more than giving the final stage of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign a slam-bang media kickoff. In arts circles, the word has all sorts of human and social dimensions (“politics: the total complex of relations…between people living in a society,” posits the fifth definition in Webster’s).
To be sure, the kaleidoscopic array of speakers and presenters appearing under NPAC’s umbrella, and the themes they dealt with—the support and nurturing of artists, the crisis in arts education, the vagaries of public arts policy, broadening community participation, environmental and organizational sustainability, the mechanics of diversity—touched upon so many crucial aspects of American life that the political implications of the gathering seemed to proliferate far beyond the constraints of electoral decision-making.
Democracy, appropriately, was NPAC’s modus operandi. A series of daily caucuses, in which the citizen-engagement group AmericaSpeaks blended participants of different stripes into 10-at-a-table discussion groups, climaxed in a concluding all-conference “town meeting” at which delegates voted electronically to set priorities for a forward-looking agenda (visit “Rock the Vote”) designed, in the words of NPAC co-chair Ann Meier Baker of the service organization Chorus America, to “activate the performing arts community in America.”
Does a performing arts community as such actually exist? Baker and the leaders of the other four national service organizations that served as primary planners and hosts for NPAC—Theatre Communications Group, OPERA America, the League of American Orchestras and Dance/USA, each of which staged simultaneous sub-conferences of their own—were working in Denver to coalesce the varied live-performance disciplines they represent into an arts super-group. As an advocacy apparatus, it could wield increased power and influence as well as encourage such developments as cross-discipline collaborations, new strategies for audience development and diversification, innovations in training and technology, and so on. To that end, “Taking Action Together” was NPAC’s overarching title, and some 26 additional arts outfits were signed on as convention partners.
How effective this nascent super-group will be remains to be seen. But both NPAC—building on a rudimentary agenda set at a smaller, less integrated 2004 meeting in Pittsburgh, where the arts disciplines convened separately then joined forces on the final day—and TCG, in its separate conference programming, showed indisputable savvy in their choice of big thinkers to grease the wheels of collective action.
Leading the pack was business-management guru Jim Collins, the Boulder-based author of the best-seller Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t, who exhorted a sea of listeners in the Colorado Convention Center’s grand-scale Wells Fargo Theatre that as members of the arts sector, they should not take the frequently offered advice to behave more like business in general. The model of good business, he contended, is a model of “averageness” and “good is the enemy of greatness.” Great arts organizations will grow not from adherence to tradition, consensus or money as a measure of success but, Collins vigorously maintained, from a culture of discipline and devotion to core values.
One of TCG’s main contributions to out-of-the-box thinking came from social entrepreneur Kinney Zalesne, co-author of microtrends: the small forces behind tomorrow’s big changes, who demonstrated in an idea-packed question-and-answer session “how little passionate groups can make a big difference.” Interviewer Kent Thompson, artistic director of Denver Center Theatre Company, pressed Zalesne for ways that theatres can better communicate with audiences in a fragmented world. Citing the ever-more-condensed patterns and trendlines of contemporary society, Zalesne offered two pieces of advice: “Be comfortable holding inconsistent ideas in your head at the same time,” she said, and rather than succumbing to an outdated conformity, arts groups should “press for individuality.”
Democracy was at play at NPAC in multiple ways. Months before the event, a designated team of bloggers, connected to the popular ArtsJournal website, began discussions on topics that were expected to emerge in Denver. Once the gathering was underway, a new slate of bloggers “representing various artistic genres and roles” was enlisted to convey their NPAC experiences daily. Not everyone thought the Internet effort was big enough and fast enough—the meeting’s “key ideas and the agreed-upon agenda have not percolated through the blogosphere, and this is a huge missed opportunity,” groused dance blogger Doug Fox five days after NPAC dispersed—but others traded critiques and anecdotes with relish.
TCG’s conference contingent, some 628 theatre leaders, administrators, funders, trustees and independent artists (and the largest delegation to take part in the “town hall” balloting), continued its own slate of programming with dynamic speaker Kwame Kwei-Armah, the award-winning British actor, director and playwright, whose “Theatre as Foreign Policy” address roused listeners in the Denver Center Theatre Company mainstage space to a noisy standing ovation. “Can theatre have at its core a global aim?” It can, posited Kwei-Armah, whose Elmina’s Kitchen, about the Afro-Caribbean community, won acclaim in Britain, the U.S. and beyond. “I am in no way saying that as a writer one has to sit down and say, ‘Now here’s a world problem—let me write about it.’ I am a firm believer that in cultural specificity comes universality. Our natural instinct is to mine the universal—all that we share. But in our ever-shrinking world—a world where every society has several communities within it that interlock not just nationally but internationally—a play I write about a West Indian restaurant in Hackney can find itself playing and speaking to an audience in Baltimore and Chicago and Sweden and Pakistan.”
Demonstrating nothing if not chutzpah, TCG executive director Teresa Eyring invited monologist and commentator Mike Daisey to Denver to perform his much-discussed show How Theater Failed America—which takes the nation’s regional theatres to task for corporate regimentation, waste of resources, failure to support artists and similar malfeasance—for conference-goers who may not have caught it in Seattle, New York or elsewhere. “The ecosystem of the American theatre thrives and lives on the blood of actors—we don’t value them as an industry,” Daisey asserted at a morning session when respondents to his performance the night before suggested actors at their theatres might not be such egregious victims of the system. Yale Repertory Theatre artistic director James Bundy refereed the crackling conversation.
A similar energy coursed through the discussion at an affinity group on new-work development (one of 16 breakout sessions on TCG’s program) moderated by Arena Stage’s David Dower and La Jolla Playhouse’s Shirley Fishman. “Theatres need to create a continuum that supports writers over time,” Fishman posited, to general agreement, while Todd London of the playwrights’ organization New Dramatists eyed such innovations as “encouraging marketing departments to involve playwrights in promoting plays.” Jenny Larson, interim artistic director of Austin’s Salvage Vanguard Theater, turned a cliché on its head when she noted that the overabundance of new plays on Austin stages meant writers there had “the reverse of the developed-to-death problem—new work goes up so fast that sometimes it’s not ready.”
America’s teenagers don’t attend theatre because it’s too formal and theatres don’t invite them in in a way that captures their interest—that was the unsurprising premise of a presentation, complete with focus-group video, by Maryland-based researcher Mark Shugoll, analyzing young people’s attitudes about the art form. Audiences and the communities they come from were also front and center in such roundtables as “Current Events and Their Impact on Our Work,” in which Roadside Theater of Kentucky’s Dudley Cocke and a cadre of committed-to-the-moment artists shared enthusiasm for such projects as Appalshop’s interactive web/video/radio project Thousand Kites, about the U.S. prison system, which, Cocke noted, “uses the Internet to get past barriers of censorship.”
At a session called “Lunch with the NEA,” Bill O’Brien, director of theatre and musical theatre for the National Endowment for the Arts, fielded prickly questions about the agency’s recent decision to eliminate site visits in theatre as a tool for evaluating the work of grantees. The loss of a peer evaluation system has not gone over well in the field and is particularly troubling to theatres in non-urban areas; theatres are also concerned about cost and quality issues in producing video work samples. O’Brien cautioned that the high cost of the site-visit system could diminish dollars for grants, but assured dubious listeners that the NEA was still open to discussion on the subject. A national task force on the site-visit debate is being formed, with TCG coordinating the process, to provide the NEA with input from the field.
More NEA news came from the chairman himself, Dana Gioia, who introduced a new agency study, “Artists in the Workforce,” which calculates that self-defined artists—numbering almost two million—are one of the largest classes of workers in the nation, only slightly smaller than the U.S. military’s active-duty and reserve personnel. Artists, Gioia said, now represent 1.4 percent of the U.S. labor force.
At least some of those satisfactorily employed artists, particularly of the playwriting variety, owe their well-being to iconic teacher-practitioner Paula Vogel, whose mini–boot camp on playwriting recommended that its sometimes nonplussed attendees take up “fun theatre games” with the goal of “taking the normal and making it strange.” Vogel urged aspiring writers, as she has at Brown University for the past 24 years, to make their plays “look, sound and read like no other.”
Recently appointed Eugene O’Neill professor and chair of playwriting at Yale University, Vogel also emceed a TCG plenary session on “Theatre in the Environment,” headlined by climate expert Alexander MacDonald, a scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a collaborator on the GLOBE project with Al Gore. In her introduction, Vogel counseled that in the face of climate change, “We need the imagination to envision the future, the gift to examine what’s happening under our noses, and the belief we can work collectively to change this problem.” To such ends, Dr. MacDonald—who earned a laugh with his declaration, “My job today is to try to depress you”—sprinted through a slide-supported lecture that ultimately had the opposite effect. “My optimism,” he reasoned, “is based on the human inclination to respond ethically to dilemmas such as global warming.” Two craftily staged short plays from the Curious Theatre Company of Denver’s five-year-old New Voices youth playwriting program—written by Luke Slattery, entering his senior year at Colorado Academy, and Bailey Williams, a Cherry Creek High School graduate now at New York University—confirmed Generation Y’s instinctive sympathy for ecological responsibility.
In rare moments free of sessions, breakouts, caucuses or affinity groups—or when conference-goers ducked out of the official over-programming—the destination of choice was ArtsTown, a fantasy environment in the convention center’s vast exhibit hall. Along a grid of “streets” with a green-carpeted “central park” at its hub, scores of exhibitors displayed their wares, organizations touted their missions and communication (electronic and otherwise) flourished. Attractions included the entire USA design exhibit imported from the 2007 Prague Quadrennial and the well-attended smART bar, where information-hungry arts pros, perhaps overstimulated by NPAC’s emphasis on group interaction and consensus, could schedule one-on-one consultations with experts in their fields.
Scattered throughout the TCG conference sessions were presentations of five 2008 TCG awards, including one acknowledging the Denver Metro Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, a supporter of local scientific and cultural organizations that is itself funded by a retail sales tax that has been repeatedly reauthorized by Denver voters. The Theatre Practitioner Award went to the team of René Buch and Gilberto Zaldívar, founders of New York City’s multilingual Repertorio Español. The Peter Zeisler Memorial Award, recognizing artistic risk-taking, went to another team of longtime collaborators, Mildred Ruiz and Steven Sapp, co-founders of the ensemble Universes. Foundation and Corporate Awards went to the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust, which funds the Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award and other benefits for playwrights; and the media giant Time Warner, which counts among its many philanthropic initiatives a partnership with Signature Theatre Company to reduce the New York–based organization’s ticket price to $15. Trustee Jim Steinberg accepted the Foundation Award and Luis Castro, executive director for Time Warner’s philanthropic initiatives, accepted the Corporate Award.
In her welcome to the theatre delegation on Wednesday, TCG head Eyring expressed high hopes that the convention’s various disciplines could indeed find meaningful common ground, and urged the assembled to take part in the caucus process. She talked about some significant ways that theatre differs from the other genres in the NPAC mix. “In terms of sheer numbers, in some major communities across the U.S., there are one or two opera companies or orchestras, and 250 theatres of all sizes and shapes, sharing artists, audiences, donors and other resources,” Eyring observed. “Our local and regional ecosystems are very different.
“Also extremely important is the fact that theatre derives heavily from language and ideas, is often political, and is a place where a diversity of viewpoints—no matter how strongly expressed—can live,” she continued. “And while all disciplines support freedom of speech, not all performing art forms experience the challenges to this right in the same way that theatre does. This has divided us in the past, and could in the future if we’re not careful.”
The future Eyring cautioned about arrived post-haste, at a general NPAC session two days later. “Radical Ideas from Beyond the Border,” a plenary devoted to innovative work from other countries, moderated by superstar orchestra conductor Marin Alsop, was to have included a presentation by Indian documentary filmmaker Madhusree Dutta, who had been extended an invitation based on the recommendation of TCG. But at a pre-conference screening of Dutta’s introductory work, footage of an anti-American protest set off alarm bells among some of the planners. Offered the unacceptable option of trimming certain images from the video she submitted, Dutta declined to attend NPAC.
Still richly programmed with testimonials from brilliant Venezuelan conductor José Antonio Abreu and groundbreaking Senegalese dancer/choreographer Germaine Acogny, the session progressed to a performance by the Colorado Children’s Chorale Tour Choir, at which point several dozen protest signs carrying the query “Where Is Madhusree Dutta?” were silently raised among the capacity crowd in the Wells Fargo Theatre. Melanie Joseph, producing artistic director of New York City’s Foundry Theatre, a TCG board member and a champion of Dutta’s work, was given the stage to explain the point of the protest to the largely uninformed assembly.
The polite but high-impact disruption immediately took on an emblematic significance for many, especially in the theatre contingent. TCG board president Susan Booth, speaking at TCG’s final plenary session later in the day, eloquently defined the rift, noting that the request for Dutta to alter her work “ran counter to the wishes of TCG and our fundamental belief in artists’ freedom of expression, regardless of political content. And when the artist in question chose to withdraw from the panel rather than edit her work,” Booth averred, “TCG strongly advocated for her inclusion on the panel and the screening of her unedited video.” She went on to affirm the importance of collaboration across disciplines and her belief that NPAC constituencies could “work effectively together in the future.”
The room erupted in cheers when Booth concluded with an admonition for the field: “I’d encourage all of us to reaffirm in our own work, our own organizations and our own personal constructs of ‘thou shalt’ and ‘thou shalt not,’ a deep practice of tolerant listening and compassionate understanding of views unlike our own—for we cannot claim what we do not practice.”
There may be few finer exemplars of the qualities Booth extolled than community-focused artists Anna Deavere Smith, the New York City–based playwright, actor and educator, and Bill Rauch, artistic director of the flagship Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the driving force for 20 years behind the influential Cornerstone Theater Company. Smith was the host and Rauch was a featured speaker at NPAC’s high-powered lead-off general session, “The Power of Community Building,” which, in tandem with its focus on community-based art, laid some bouquets on the doorstep of the convention’s host city. Denver Mayor John W. Hickenlooper (after pounding out eight bars of a piano rag on an instrument that quickly exited stage right) offered up a transformative vision of what Denver’s performing arts community—already one of the nation’s most varied and richly endowed—might accomplish by 2028. But the heart of the session came in Rauch’s stirring vision of “building art through community and community through art.”
Tracking his own creative journey from the 1986 advent of Cornerstone—when he and 10 other founding members hit the road on what would become a five-year expedition into “communities across the U.S., mounting plays with first-time actors of all ages for an audience of their families and neighbors”—through the company’s eventual decision to settle in Los Angeles and tackle issues of urban diversity, Rauch described the panic he felt facing the prospect of moving on from Cornerstone to lead a company so vastly different as the monumental, classics-based OSF. “The panic passed,” Rauch avowed, “when I realized again what constantly thrills me: All art is based in community, and the terrific challenge was to apply the same values in a very different context.”
The result of Rauch’s commitment to community-building include such OSF innovations as a new Festival Latino, an “American Revolutions” commissioning program for 37 new plays about national identity, and a newfound relationship with Oregon’s military population, built around the company’s recent premiere of Julie Marie Myatt’s Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter , about a female Marine returning from Iraq. The principles of community involvement apply across the board in the performing arts, Rauch contended, landing finally on the common ground all NPAC’s sometimes contentious constituencies could unequivocally share: “Artistic expression is an essential part of human existence,” he said, “and a mighty tool for furthering our collective humanity.”