February 2010 Field Letter
Written on January 22, 2010
For this month’s Field Letter, I asked TCG board member Angel
Ysaguirre to offer his perspective on why theatre is relevant and
needed in society today. Angel is the director of global community
investing at the Boeing Company in Chicago. With the demands placed
on funders for limited grant budgets, I am ever grateful to our
partners in the philanthropic community who are constantly and eloquently
making the case for the arts. Additionally, TCG’s 2010 National
Conference will be held in the windy city. Angel mentions his excitement
about having the theatre community present to share ideas and to
learn about some of the innovative artistic work and business strategies
underway there. TCG is fortunate to have such a strong and engaged
board, as you know from reading recent Field Letters from Steppenwolf’s
artistic director Martha Lavey, lighting designer Dawn Chiang and
now Angel Ysaguirre. With this letter, I hope you enjoy getting
to know another arts advocate who is dedicated both personally and
professionally to strengthening our field.
Until next month, all the best,
The Three Faces of Theatre
By Angel Ysaguirre, Director of Global Community Investing, the Boeing Company
As someone who manages the arts giving at a large corporation, I’m often asked why Boeing funds the arts. What’s behind the question, of course, is a query about how an aerospace company, centered on the work of engineers, benefits from communities having a robust arts scene. My response typically includes three reasons: the arts comprise a natural breeding ground for innovation; the arts provide a civic service; and the beauty from art serves as a respite from an increasingly overcrowded life.
The innovation answer is expected. However, the kind of causality people imagine is not always what I intend. It’s true that the arts breed innovation and we need innovative workers to design our products, but I also mean something else. Our communities need members to think in new ways if we are to respond productively to all the change the world is presently throwing at us. As we become an increasingly global society and continue to see a growth in international migration, we are experiencing an important shift in demographics all over the globe, whether in the United States, Italy or South Korea. Other kinds of changes, in the earth’s climate and genetic engineering to name a couple, require a speedy response in new technology, behavior and ethics. People will have to think differently to create these solutions. Innovation in the form of theatre helps us strengthen those muscles. Last fall, I saw Richard Foreman’s Idiot Savant at the Public Theater in New York, a thoroughly abstract and non-linear piece of theatre, in which the characters take orders from a disembodied voice and consider the subjectivity of experience. It was, in a way, a completely nonsensical experience but the humor and acting talent kept one engaged enough to make it through. Like a Faulkner novel, this play asks you to give up on making meaning until it unfolds in its own time. This means choosing to remain engaged while not understanding. At some point, if one is open and works hard, meaning emerges. Until then, though, you make your peace with what at first seems nonsensical. This is an emotional and intellectual exercise that theatre makes possible and that serves us well as we try to take issues the world puts before us seriously and tackle productively. This skill and patience is needed in our communities but also in an increasingly diverse company. Innovation, then, serves the purpose of developing the workforce of the future but also serves a civic one.
The second purpose of art, as I see it, is also civic in nature. Theatre presents us with a picture of ourselves that we are often willing to encounter only with the distance the stage provides us. One of the special treats of living in Chicago is having the Hypocrites (a theatre company) among us. One of the highlights from this 10-year old theatre company was a production of Maria Irene Fornes' Mud, a play about a hard working woman who cannot escape poverty due to a lack of education and the financial and emotional dependence of two men. This production protected the audience from the protagonist’s pain by placing the action in a glass box. The audience walked about the box to view the scenes, guided by a light bulb that lit up to alert the audience of the direction in which the next scene would be played. As an audience member walking around the box, one finds oneself trying to walk a little faster than one’s neighbor in order to get a better view of the action. Near the end of the play, the protagonist tries to escape her situation. With an ax, she breaks the box and leaves, walking out among the audience. As she slowly walks among you, looking at you amazed, sweating and exhausted, you realize that her pain has provided you entertainment (much like the evening news might) and that you have vied for position for the best peek into her pathetic life. Then the men pick up a gun, go after her and bring her back into the box and again you realize that you’ve done nothing. This is, of course, a play and in a way nothing is to be done. However, it does implicate the audience about our response to poverty and violence. If someone were to tell us directly that we often use other people’s pain as entertainment and refuse to get involved, we are likely to defensively shrug it off, maybe even getting angry at the accuser. However, when the argument unfolds in front of us on a stage, we accept it less defensively.
While my first two reasons are centered in civic benefits, my third is purely personal but is, in my estimation, the most important. The arts provide the opportunity to experience beauty in a world where the work day keeps getting longer and where we have less time for leisure. Rejuvenation is important for productivity and for our souls—a word we often think too slippery to use in public discourse—and Americans turn to theatre more than any other performing art form for that rejuvenating experience. That beauty might reside in the sharpness of an idea engendered in the story on stage, the sound of a voice or the colors and textures of art design. In Joshua Schmidt’s and Jason Loewith’s musical adaptation of Elmer Rice’s dark play, The Adding Machine, which received its world premiere at Chicago’s Next Theatre Company, there is a moment when a husband and wife, who have come to loathe each other, remember better times during the song “Didn’t We” that is engrossing both because of the emotional content and the register of the actors’ voices. In Mary Zimmerman’s Eleven Rooms of Proust, a co-production between Lookingglass Theatre Company and About Face Theatre, one loses oneself each time one enters another room filled with beautiful costumes, lighting, set and words. Living a meaningful life, or perhaps living well, requires working productively, living in consort with ones neighbors and experiencing beauty. Few of us do any of those as much as we want to but our society rarely publicly recognizes the benefits of the third enough.
As a TCG board member who lives in Chicago, I am proud and excited
about Chicago’s being selected as the host city of the 2010
TCG National Conference. We have a lot to share. I’ve already
spoken about some of the amazing theatre Chicago has produced and
you’ll have many opportunities to see some of it. There are
also exciting projects that take place behind the scenes that I
think will interest you, such as the collaboration among Blair Thomas
and Co., the House Theatre of Chicago and the Hypocrites, in which
they share back office staff, or Writers’ Theatre use of Twitter
to attract audiences. And, of course, we look forward to all we
will learn from the theatre practitioners who will attend this Conference
from around the country and the globe. I hope to see you there.
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