Whither (or Wither) Art?
A resident theatre pioneer gauges the artistic pulse of the contemporary American theatre
By Zelda Fichandler
Not this or that, but this and that. Because one thing is true, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the opposite is not also true. Up and down, back and forth, move ahead and drop back, no straight staircase to the sky but growth in a kind of spiral: success, success, success, then failure and disappointment, then the struggle to get unstuck and push ahead, to keep on keeping on, and the one who finishes last wins. Brecht has Galileo say, “As much of the truth gets through as we push through; we crawl by inches.”
Over the holidays, I had the time to catch up with the October, November and December issues of American Theatre and was astounded by the thought-provoking riches I found in them. Every theatre worker in the land appreciates and needs Ben Cameron’s recurring “Cheers!” Which is not to say that the TCG constituencies aren’t always encouraged to think outside the box. But here is something else again, something new, I believe—challenges to and warnings about the box itself. Serious questions are posed about the very form and nature of what we know as the “institutional theatre”—a kind of theatre that in the past half-century has transformed the way we pro-duce (bring forth) our art. We are pushed to think about whether these institutions do or do not, did but now don’t, nurture the art and the artists—measured against their founding mission. Since those who challenge and warn are our friends and colleagues and raise their voices not only out of anger, disappointment and frustration, but also out of love and a sense of responsibility, I take their queries very seriously. I hope we can avoid being defensive and can listen up. Here are some personal ruminations.
I left Arena Stage in 1991, and I know that much has changed since then. It has become increasingly difficult to keep a theatre pressing forward in a creative way. In my time with the Acting Company, Margot Harley’s spirited young ensemble that tours the country with classics and new work, I continued to learn about the aspirations of young talent and about the amazing audience across America that is hungry for theatre. Leading an intense actor-training program within a large university has taught me how the weight of a highly structured, top-down institution actually feels; I have a deeper empathy with the artist’s sense that the largest issues are decided above. I speak in this essay as a representative of what has come to be called the “institutional theatre,” now under scrutiny, if not attack.
My six-year-old grandson is wont to ask me how things were in the olden days (starting with the Age of the Dinosaurs, followed by an unimaginably long historical period pre-TV and baseball computer games, followed thereupon by the more hospitable present, which he very much enjoys). My point being that I may be able to bring some information from my experience with the dinosaurs that others of you may not have.
What are the critics saying to us? What do they suggest as the next crusade? What have they misperceived, and what enlightens us? What is feasible and what is pie-in-the-sky? And the big issues: A new generation of founders? Challenge the power of our boards? No longer an alternative theatre as we were founded to be, pass the torch to the new alternatives? Fold up our expensive tents and silently steal away? Out with the old, on with the new and every dog has his day? These are provocative questions, indeed! How do we respond to them? Jaan Whitehead (“Art Will Out,” Oct. ’02) acknowledges that not every theatre or board or mission statement is like every other, but feels that the pressure of institutional art (with the emphasis on “institution” rather than “art”) is widespread enough to warrant sounding the alarm.
What does she mean by institutional art? The following, I think: Art that is made with the right eye on the dollar, the left eye on the stage, with the right eye dominant. Art that doesn’t fly because it’s tethered to the bottom line. Formulaic art—this was a hit in Cleveland (Boston, Milwaukee, on or Off Broadway), this could attract a star, this one got a Tony, this one would be great for group sales or students or at Christmas or for spring vacation or for St. Patrick’s Day or around Rosh Hashonah, etc., etc.; too many lows and not enough highs—a sense of uniformity, predictability, a sense of low-grade depression. Where is astonishment, derring-do, originality, hoopla? Is it one from Column A and one from Column B, or does it all add up to something intentional and brave? Does what we think the subscribers want or what quickens the theatre’s artistic heart come first?
Ah, what the subscribers want! The circle that Whitehead traces really exists—I’ve felt the clutch of it closing around me, and it’s a circle from hell. To stave off death, the maw of the box office must be fed. We count on the subscribers who make up one-half (or one-third or two-thirds or 90 percent) of our audience to feed it. Indeed, if we appear plump and chipper, other sources of nourishment may open up; no foundation or corporation wants to feed a dying theatre. If things work well and we give our subscribers what they want (and, of course, what we can afford), they’ll be back next year and we’ll be set for another season on a full stomach. And while there’s life, there’s hope.
This looks like a fair exchange, almost too good to be true, but we become suspicious and look around. Aha! it’s the audience who is running the theatre! No, the box office is running the theatre! No, the board and the executive director and his PR and marketing colleagues are running the theatre! No, the institution in general is running the theatre! That’s it, we’ve abdicated our creative freedom—that which defines us and for which we struggled to be born—so as not to bite the hands that feed us. And where does that get us? What might be the unintended consequences? Whitehead has opened up some thoughts that we have probably thought before and pushed aside, for where do these thoughts lead?
A theatre gets the audience it signals to and deserves, and repertory is destiny. As in any real-life relationship, the response we get springs from what we send out, give off, invite. Are we underrating our subscribers? Why should their taste, curiosity and capacity to chew hard on some tough thoughts or forgive a well-intentioned miss be less than ours? Presumably, deep down they’re very much like us despite differences in ethnicity, age, range of income. They come to the theatre to be awakened emotionally, psychologically, even intellectually and politically, and to have an adventure, to identify with a life that’s similar enough to theirs so they can recognize it but that plays out in different circumstances. Maybe their numbers would increase if we shared our own personal tastes more fully, opened ourselves up through our work to our own deepest concerns. And how do we know what they want if we don’t offer what we want? And how do they know what they want when they haven’t seen it yet? This is a better line of speculation; we should think further.
And what if the real audience, the one we must have to complete our work, drifts away and another audience replaces it who is satisfied with less? Audiences are not interchangeable integers, after all. Do we think that when the world turns—which it will—and the economy recovers—which it will—and a new president stimulates a change in the Zeitgeist (maybe John Kerry?), do we think that then we can return to what we really want to do? And recover the audience we’ve lost? The future grows out of the present while the present seeps up out of the past. The choices we make today describe the theatre we’ll have tomorrow. Process is everything, and the outcome can’t be predicted. It’s possible for a theatre to die of starvation, and that, of course, is very sad. It’s also possible for it to wither away, and that is sadder.
Whitehead invites us to consider the relationship between institution and art. I think of an institution as a cradle and the thing we call art as the baby. There is reciprocal need: the baby needs the cradle, but the cradle is an empty, useless piece of wood without the baby. Baby Eugene O’Neill didn’t have a cradle: he slept in a dresser drawer on the road with his actor-father and mother, but he created anyway, or perhaps because of. The institution can be as lean and simple as that dresser drawer or as elaborate and multi-leveled as money will buy; the sturdier-yet-flexible it can be, the more support it can offer. The cradle’s/institution’s function is to provide a continuity of comfort and stability, an opportunity for growth, an empathetic, responsive face, a respect for organic creative process, tolerance for behavioral slip-ups (like flops!) and pride in the baby’s hi-jinks. The institution accepts that the baby will develop according to its own internal laws and dedicates itself to providing the environment to encourage that.
Or this metaphor: The main event is not the institution. The main event is under the Big Top where the performers with their feats of magic and daring and the audience with its imaginative belief and its empathy get together and all breathe the same air at the same moment. All of them are grateful to the management for seeing to it that everyone has been paid, the lights are on, the event has come in on budget, the seats are filled and that the tent doesn’t leak. The president of the board and other board members have the best seats, as they deserve, and will later throw a party in appreciation of the extraordinarily audacious circus troupe. The clarity of this relationship is harder to maintain in threatening times because the board has the responsibility for the survival of the institution and can become excessively interested in what goes on in the tent as well as how much it cost to put it there. Tensions are to be expected and worked through, always remembering that while theatre is a business, its business is art, not business.
Because one thing is true it doesn’t necessarily follow that the opposite is not also true. The artist must have freedom to be playful, to work from internal impulses. But he also shares responsibility for the fiscal health of the institution; it may surprise the board to hear that, but I’ve always found it to be so. The various production departments struggle to stay on budget and are proud when they do and actors extend themselves in many ways to build audiences. As an artistic director, I have always celebrated the box office. The dollar that came to us through it was twice-blessed: once for what it could buy in goods and services and twice as a vote of confidence that bought us freedom. The first law of the theatre is success—without success there can be no theatre. That thought wraps around everything else one can say about what’s right or wrong about our institutions. It’s the iron-framework of fact. Since the norm of theatre is failure, not success, and since times are generally out of joint, the box office has come to be a place of special honor. Looked at in this way, the link between creativity and fiduciary responsibility is unbreakable.
Here’s one from the Dinosaur Age that just surfaced in my memory, all of a piece down to what I was wearing and where I sat. President Eisenhower had moved into the White House and the Republicans moved into Washington with him, buying the houses from the Democrats who were moving out. Our audience at Arena dwindled, and it would take several years to cultivate another one. In that Republican year, we lost $10,000 at the box office—a large amount on such a small budget. My teacher and the co-founder of Arena Stage, Edward Mangum, had moved on, so that fingers pointed only at me at the final board meeting of the season where the loss was to be explained and justified. I did my best. The board members were my friends, hand-picked by Ed and me and Tom Fichandler for their love of theatre and their willingness to put in $1,000 each to get this idea off the ground. And they were pleased enough with the season. After I spoke, there was a fraught silence and then the chairman spoke up—heavily. This was the gist of it: “Of course we’re committed here to a balanced budget and no red ink and so we regret the $10,000 that was lost in this year’s operations. Zelda has explained to us how this happened. In the expectation that this was a one-time circumstance and that she will be able to guide us to a balanced budget next year and the years following, we accept the explanation and the loss.” And then the chairman asked that the board give me a vote of confidence, which they did. This was very sweet of them, and I appreciated it. But I chiefly remember the gesture as a moment of profound and unexpected learning. For I had not for a minute anticipated that a vote of no-confidence was anywhere in the cards.
What I learned was that while I was entitled to enjoy the freedom to fail, it was anticipated that I would not indulge in it too frequently. Further, that it would be much more comfortable for me if the failure could be attributed to some outside power—the Republicans, the snow, a parade, a flood in the Potomac River—and not to my own bad judgment or creative misstep. The vision thing was mine to have as long as whatever that vision generated by way of art could pay for itself by way of money. When the Ford Foundation and W. McNeil Lowry entered the field towards the end of the ’50s, Arena became not-for-profit in order to qualify for gifts and grants. But the same implicit understanding applied over the successive decades (and I never signed a contract; we would both know when it was time to part). Boards have become more sophisticated since the ’50s—through experience, they’ve learned the ways of a creative enterprise (up and down, back and forth). But I lived through my long tenure at Arena Stage in a state of not this or that but this and that—Money and Art, Art and Money. In later days, the unresolved dialectic was not even imposed by the institution; it had become internalized because that’s how things had to be. Since the late ’80s, the balance has become even more difficult for the artistic leaders to maintain as financial support has dwindled.
Whitehead asks us to cease looking outside and turn our gaze inward, to the inside of our institutions for the source of our sense of oppression and ways we might free ourselves from it. And, indeed, we must do that. But the outside is the primary dimension within which our theatres live. A theatre is an organism, an artwork in and of itself, and the person who holds the vision is its primary artist. It’s her angle-of-viewing that, like the super-objective of a play, animates all the rest. (Ralph Waldo Emerson was wise to note that “an institution is the lengthened shadow of a man.” For man, read person.) It’s as she confronts the sounds, sights, political conflicts, rhythms, scientific achievements, timbre of human relationships, status of minorities and women, contemporary forms of theatre and other art forms, and especially the economic support systems of her time that her vision for a theatre forms itself. An artistic director belongs to both worlds—one foot inside the institution, one outside. Consciously or unconsciously, a personal vision is born in reaction to a world.
Just imagine how the artistic director’s vision would expand and her heart lighten if suddenly there were a generous infusion of funds and she could pay for everything that she and the artists gathered around her had ever dreamed of. Then the tension between art and money could resolve. Then the relationship between institution and art could become crystal clear, unclouded by the pressures of survival. To think this way is to play with fantasy of course, for the Great Benefactor has retired and departed on a long tour of the universe and we don’t expect him back. But it’s a good bit of fantasy for it helps us to perceive the difficulty of artistic freedom in a culture defined by success in the marketplace. “He who pays the piper calls the tune” may be an overstatement of our situation, but that notion does now thread through all aspects of our institutional life.
But let us imagine that the Great Benefactor does, indeed, return with a new perspective on the Good and the Beautiful and, particularly, on those needy arts institutions that are impeded in their flowering. Could he lull our anxieties (Am I talented enough? Was that the right decision? Is this play going to make it?) or endow us with the talent and wisdom that isn’t already ours? Of course not. Take away our headaches, help us to sleep more soundly, provide more time with our families? Not a chance. Attract collaborators who will stake their creative fate with us? Show us how to build acting companies and use them well? Teach us how to be effective diplomats, fund-raisers, problem-solvers, writers, speakers, psychiatrists, and still be prepared for rehearsals? No way. Reveal to us how to treat Molière and Chekhov as old friends we would never betray, yet move their texts into a contemporary world, or how to read a new script in an unfamiliar form and be able to imagine it living on the stage? Strengthen our will so that we can take the hills and valleys and not flee? Endow us with humor, tact, wisdom, patience and the capacity to affect others with our exhilaration in the work? Make clear to us the language of budgets and balance sheets so that we know how to match expenditures to a value system and spend money without wasting it? Sharpen our judgment and broaden our taste? Awaken our capacity for collegiality and our teacher’s warmth so that we may give our personal attention and support to all the work, not just our own, and to all the people doing it? Keep us on the pulse of our community so we can fathom our neighbors’ deepest thoughts maybe even before they themselves are aware of them? And keep us in touch with our world so its preoccupations can be reflected on our stages? No, he can’t. Of course he can’t.
I’ve just set down a job description for artistic leadership—the artistic director and his comrades who share the vision and contribute to it with their own skills. And that was the short form! So what can Mr. Great Benefactor do for us where Whitehead suggests we’re remiss? First, he would allow us to use the planning process as a way to fulfill our artistic dreams. Planning for the future would cease to be merely a function of budgeting and become one of dreaming. We would be able to plan out of the images in our minds rather than within the vise of this year’s (reduced?) budget and/or the nagging weight of accumulated debt. What else? He could lift from us the fears that repress the creative spirit. For it’s fear, I suggest, rather than lack of talent or imagination or good will that leads to making what Whitehead calls institutional art. Which one of us wants to be the one to fold up the tent?
Fear encourages caution and conformity, and caution and conformity are antithetical to what we refer to as art, since art is always a personal and original way of knowing the world. Creativity is born out of the capacity to play, and it’s the very capacity for meaningful play that defines us as human beings. We can play with political ideas, with scientific hypotheses, with new forms in literature, with bodies in space; we call a theatre production a play and we play the piano and the violin. The notion of play is indissolubly connected to the idea of freedom, and I left something out of the job description. It’s the artistic leader’s role to create a quiet and concentrated and non-judgmental environment so that the entire community can play within it without fear. Benefaction can help her with that. I emphasize the organic connection between funding and fear, for I’m not sure that it’s fully understood by those pointing to our lapses, unfulfilled commitments, seeming inhospitality to artists, etc. (In addition to Whitehead, see Todd London, “The Shape of Things to Come,” Nov. ’02, and Polly Carl, “Creating the Swell,” same issue.)
London bravely opts for a new generation of artistic directors and a new generation of theatres and, for the companies and playwrights within them, not just a place at the table but the table itself. “Where is a new generation of writer-founders, of playwright-managers?” he asks. That’s a rousing manifesto, and certainly anything conceived in the imagination has the potential to be born into reality. Let some talented, courageous new leaders come forward and hitch themselves to the wagon. They will be warmly welcomed into the field—and gently warned. For founding today is very different from founding yesterday.
News from the dinosaurs: Beginning in the ’50s there was but a blank slate, and only a few of us were scratching on it. No models, just us, hanging onto skyhooks. An almost primitive instinct for improvisation and testing of reality was released. “What is to be done?” (by chance, the title of Lenin’s revolutionary pamphlet!) and “How is it to be done?” were the subtexts of our daily lives. The sands take lines unknown, as the poet said, even as a painter lays down on his canvas a random sketch that will define the painting to follow. At Arena, we sketched as we went, rapidly producing one thing after the other (17 shows in the first year because the audience was very small and we had to turn productions over quickly). Poor, so poor! Tireless—no, tired!—we lived play to play, and all there was of the future was right now. Modestly, slowly, the audience grew. Unexpectedly, the foundations (circa 1957) and the NEA (1965) and, later, corporations and our own community found us. They gave us money, but better than that, they gave us respect. Respect: “to look more at, to give attention to, to regard.” We felt important to more than this tiny unit on this tiny budget; we seemed to matter to the culture of our country. It was a heady ascent during those middle decades.
A kind of promise was made to us, not in so many words, but a promise: These agencies would continue to be there for us and would participate in our future, caring that we survive. The promise was kept over many years, deepening as time went on and as we evolved artistically. We enjoyed the sense that if we came up with an innovative idea—artistic or organizational (organization was also considered creation)—it stood a chance of being funded. Then, for reasons you know, the promise was broken; the official culture turned its back. The final signal for me, theatrical in its communicative power, was that during her term as chairman of the NEA, Jane Alexander was able to pin down only one private meeting with Bill Clinton, which lasted just 20 minutes and offered no assurances (as noted in her book, Command Performance). There was no longer any political capital to be gained for a sitting president to support the arts. And nothing has happened since then to suggest that the climate has changed.
Whitehead suggests the need to “move out from under institutional shadows” and the ripeness for “a new age of pioneers.” Pioneers will come or not come without our intervention and will always be welcome, and our theatres cast far more light than shadows—just imagine the American theatre without them! I salute the work of avant-garde theatres, community-based theatres, ethnically diverse theatres, ensembles of form-seekers, playwriting collectives and all forms of socially based theatres. I admire their creativity and freedom. I’ve watched them proliferate since the ’60s—often out of a singular aesthetic vision, the product of a single mind, or in response or antithesis to the institutional theatre. But while we come from the same line, the same root, these theatres are not “an alternative” but “a parallel” to the institutional theatre; they will neither replace nor inherit it, nor do we need to choose one form over the other. We are on different paths, with different tasks and structures that reflect them. Variants of the same species, each of us is a vital and essential part of the wonderful variety-within-unity that is the American Theatre. These parallel theatres are in great need of increased funding, which their flexibility and very variety make it hard for conservative funding agencies to categorize and, therefore, to support. That’s a great injustice that won’t be set right, I fear, until we have the seven years of plenty due us.
We should work together to discover and elect a president with an affinity for the arts. We should write and disseminate broadsides making the case for a New Deal for the arts in America. We should make immediate contact with Dana Gioia, the new chairman of the NEA, who promises to restore grants to individual artists and to find a way to increase federal funding. We should take inspiration from and look for another Helen Clark, elected prime minister of New Zealand in 1999, who promptly declared herself minister of arts, culture and heritage and within months injected tens of millions of dollars into a “cultural recovery package.” Something like this grand boost could happen to us; hope is a thing with feathers.
This isn’t the time, I suggest, to man the barricades and whip up an assault against a form of theatre that in the past half-century has become so imbedded in our theatrical way-of-life as to now be its dominant form, and which at the same time finds itself in the same position as many solo artists, locked outside and knocking at the gates. But is it not the time to listen hard with our inner ear and ask again as we asked before in that Age of the Dinosaur, “What is to be done?” And “How?”
There is an old Russian saying: “Circumstances alter cases,” which I take to mean “depending on where you sit, is how you see it,” or, “a thing changes depending on who’s looking at it.” It’s about relativism and the subjective nature of truth. Institutions feel betrayed by this spate of critical articles in American Theatre, kicked when they’re down—“After all we’ve done for you…!”—while the artists are frustrated and angry and prod the institutions to set new imaginative goals that will include them.
The feelings of the institutions are justified. Since mid-20th-century, they’ve been the primary developer of talent for the American theatre—for stage as well as film and TV. Go to a movie, turn on the tube, get tickets to a Broadway or Off-Broadway show, there our artists are. “We promised opportunity for artistic development, we delivered on that promise; there are more jobs for artists outside of New York than in it, the so-called center,” the institutions say. Taken all together, our theatres constitute a kind of national bazaar where Broadway producers shop for next year’s product and next year’s Pulitzer playwright. Where else can our new playwrights and their plays be developed but with us?
And we’ve created the possibility of a new way-of-life for those who want it. Actors, directors, designers, playwrights can move from theatre to theatre, using themselves creatively in dialogue with intelligent audiences, often evolving a sense of belonging with one or several theatres where they can count on coming back. What with these “theatre gigs”—plus film, TV soaps and commercials, voice-overs, designing or directing for opera, teaching—an artist can have a respected, even fulfilling life while building funds for retirement. Besides, say the institutions, artists don’t really want a home, they prefer moving along from choice to choice, it’s hard to pin them down even for one project; their agents stand in the way of long commitments out-of-town.
So what’s wrong with this picture? Nothing, if everybody’s satisfied with it. Don’t institutions tell it the way it is? Yes, but there are other voices, speaking up now loud and clear. They ask for involvement, a kind of permanence and continuity, the sort of emotional security and ebullience you feel in a personal relationship. They want their work to add to the overall work of the place, to build something with others and watch it grow. They want to belong to an idea they believe in and can serve with their creativity. They want to have a sense of self-determination and a role in defining the destiny of their institution.
Transient, temporary work sometimes feels as nothing but a high form of what the manufacturing industry calls “piece work”—you get paid for the number of “pieces of work” you turn out and how many you turn out is the measure of things, not you, yourself. On a rainy day, “jobbing-in”—our word for piece work—can make one feel devalued: a “gig” can only be followed by another “gig.” You may be moving along but only from here to there—moving, but not evolving.
If an actor is always cast because he’s “right for the role” with no consideration for the development of his own range and versatility, if with each role he starts over again with a group of strangers who have no collective experience to draw upon, if he sometimes gets the sense of himself as a kind of commodity—paid to fill a need—and then “time’s up and thanks,” what is it we’re saying to him? That “Theatre’s a precarious profession, we always knew that, be glad you’re working”? Is that okay? Is that enough?
Of all the artists, the playwright gets the most focused attention from the institution, and never more so than right now. That’s been my experience and it’s what I observe (see Lenora Inez Brown’s article “The Real World,” Nov. ’02). But the number of productions the playwright receives may not be the main point to her. To have her voice mingle with the voice of others in a collective consciousness as the play is evolved from within itself into production; to know that even if this one fails, the next time she knocks with a telephone book of pages in her hands, they have to let her in—might weigh more than any number of exposures of her work produced out of any number of disparate motives in any number of theatres.
There’s a tendency to romanticize our beginnings, as if we were an early Ideal Community. The beginnings weren’t romantic—they were exhausting, impoverished and full of anxiety, but, yes, there was a specialness about that time because our intention was so clear and unconflicted. Each of the small band of beginners, flying blind in our separate air spaces, was struggling to create an artistic home: a company, an artistic collective, living and working in one place over a period of time, all of us with the same notion of why it was important to be doing that, having compatible skills and talents and a view of our world and the role of art within it, all of us together engaged in an ongoing dialogue with our audience via theatrical means. It didn’t seem very complicated, it seemed entirely natural, inevitable, not even requiring elaboration in a manifesto or a mission statement. What else could a theatre be? How could you call it a theatre if it wasn’t a place? Who else could define the culture of a theatre but its artists? Define its style? Didn’t a collective art form require a collective? Weren’t we here to protest and even replace the put-it-up, smash-it-down one-shot system of Broadway?
Our earliest banners were emblazoned with “Not a Hotel for Theatre, but a Home!” and a few of us held onto these (and still have them!), but not very many of us. As years went by, other slogans came into style. “Professionalism! You Can Count on Us!” or “Good Plays Well Done, That’s the Ticket!” Or even “Eight-for-the-Price-of-Six!” And until I picked up my October, November and December issues of American Theatre, I had come to think that no one objected to the way things had become except some of my professional friends and my students, who want to be in companies, having been trained and proselytized for that kind of a life in art, but have not been able to find them.
The fact that artists are angry, frustrated and disappointed is not necessarily bad news. The other side of these feelings is that artists are insistent, energized, geared up to make larger commitments; they want in. Artists have become eager to become part of the warp and woof of institutional life and even take responsibility at its center (or as London puts it, occupy that center) but find institutions inhospitable or simply closed to them. Is this perception an illusion? How many artists have these thoughts and feelings? Six? Six hundred? Six thousand? If we were to throw a party, would they come? And is it true that the institutions are inhospitable or closed to artists? Is it too much of an ongoing responsibility to nurture a group of artists, drawing them into the center of the work? These questions are, of course, no use in a theoretical way, they need to be answered in practice. And the theatres would need to make the first move.
For starters, I suggest an effusive display of understanding that audiences come to the theatre to witness and partake of the work the artists have made—that it’s art that makes the money and not the other way around. “Imagination is the nose of the public,” wrote Edgar Allan Poe, “by this at any time it may be quietly led.” What else? Pay those who are mature and committed artists the top salaries within the institution, at least equal to that of any (other) fund-raiser or audience-builder. This gesture more than any other will signal where the artist stands as to recognition and power. In the deepest sense, artists are teachers—out of the darkness, they bring light—and their salary should be pegged to what a full professor makes at the university in the theatre’s community. In some smaller communities, that may still not be enough, so that allowances should be made for commercial Time-Outs. (Time-Outs for creative refreshment need to be possible as well.)
Artists should be invited to become involved in the total life of the institution in order to provide it with their special knowledge and point-of-view and to have their say. I read that while Ingmar Bergman was heading the Swedish National Theatre, he established a five-member artists’ council that he consulted about repertory, company membership, casting and the like. I don’t know how this idea would play out in America, though I wish I’d tried it myself. And a proportion of board positions should be set aside in the theatre’s by-laws or be established by common understanding for artists to occupy. This would be a very important change in the way we have operated, but it must be pressed for.
The presence of artists at board meetings would necessitate a transposition in vocabulary from a bottom-line, market-share, brand-conscious, focus-group lingo brought into the boardroom from a for-profit culture to a language of emotional meanings, thus bringing the board closer to the heartbeat of the theatre and unifying everyone around the real ideas that underlie the theatre. Significant issues do come up at board meetings, but are presented in such a way as to disconnect them from the life of the theatre as it’s experienced by those living it. The artists’ presence will focus these issue in a more appropriate way. Remember that artists are smart; planning is the strategy by which they bring art into the world; the artist’s ability to juggle the animating idea along with time, money and materials is an aspect of her talent. Artists have much to contribute to the deliberations of a board.
To keep the artist outside the business of the institution (with which he’s engaged, at any rate) is to romanticize him (“Artists are above business”) at the same time that it miniaturizes him (“Artists just don’t have the head for it, they’re fanciful, unworldly creatures, we need to take care of them”). Why has it taken so long to see this?
The creative courage of the artistic director will inspire artists; they, in turn, will support the risks she takes on their behalf whether or not they succeed. The transparency she fosters so that information—whether good news or bad—is available to all, up and down and around the building, will deepen the sense of mutual respect and a communal destiny. And she will see to it that no one is made to feel intimidated to speak up; in story and myth, the figure of Death is always silent. The artistic director’s acknowledgement of ambiguity, relativism, second thoughts and struggle that exist behind difficult decisions will draw the artists even closer to her, revealing her as worthy of having, using and sharing power. The blinding glare of certainty always reduces intimacy and trust.
And so on. There are myriad ways for the institution to build an interactive relationship with its artists that will create the sense of a home where each can be for himself and also for the other and where all are for the work. Both Whitehead and London suggest some of these. Eventually, all of us must come to a much deeper understanding of the nature of the organism that we call a theatre. I hold close Aristotle’s statement: “What a thing can be, it must be, whether it be a horse or a man.” Or a theatre, he might have added, had he thought of it. At some point in the future, we’ll want to define ourselves by whether we insisted strongly enough on becoming what we can be, and therefore have become it. We will have come to consensus that artists are the theatre, not a separate tribe bussed in for the performances. The artists are the theatre, but administrators who protect and advance the artists’ work are also the theatre. And the theatre is also its board, volunteers of time, money and caring on behalf of a profession that must sometimes seem to them a total mystery, operating as it does on hunches, gambles, the unknown. What else is the theatre? The repertory is the theatre, its very flesh and bones. Its ticket prices, its brochures and ads and newsletters, its spaces, even if they’re humble, the intimacy of people pulling for the same thing, its respect for the intelligence of its audience, its restlessness and unceasing workload and so on and so on, and even the way the very air that hangs off the walls tells a stranger what kind of a place it is—all these are the theatre.
Everything both tangible and intangible is what a theatre is, and every thing is a part of everything else. A theatre is a refracted image of life itself and Life is All One, as Barbara exultantly discovers in the last act of Shaw’s most revolutionary play. Being All One, a theatre must organize itself in circles—concentric circles, not vertically as in Enron, but rather like the rings of a tree trunk, with the artistic director and her artists in the center, yes, but what’s a center without a circumference? It’s the outer border of the cell that guarantees the integrity of the nucleus.
Since theatre is both art and money, money and art, how will we pay for our ultimate epiphany? “How?” The question hovers and Aristotle is silent. Margo Jones, who had the original idea of professional theatre outside of New York and with her small, 198-seat theatre in Dallas, Tex., began the long revolution in which we are still engaged, would say, “If you have a million-dollar idea, you can raise a million dollars.” She said this in the late ’40s, however, and I don’t know how many millions it would take to pay for that idea today. It might be that the roughly hundred million—plus or minus—that seems to be the price of a new theatre building could just as well be raised as endowment to support the idea of an artists theatre. Or if the building is a must-have, then a half of what is raised, or if not a half, then a third or even a quarter, but no less, could be set aside for an artistic leap forward. What is a building but the enclosing of an Idea?
Here in the Nov. ’02 issue of American Theatre is a National Call for Manifestoes concerning the American theatre. It’s sponsored by Playwrights Center, Polly Carl, executive director, and the Guthrie Theater, Joe Dowling, artistic director, with other distinguished associates: Anna Deavere Smith’s Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue, the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas, Actors Theatre of Louisville and Vanderbilt University Theatre. The Call asks for manifestoes “to imagine new possibilities for the future, engage in the idealism of the past, step forward and define our changing times, address the needs and necessity for the creation of new work of the theatre today.” Among the judges of the winning manifesto are Morgan Jenness, Tony Kushner and Diana Son.
The engine of the Call seems to be “the need and necessity for the creation of new work” and the search for a contemporary American theatre that will define itself by responding to that thought. It’s of note that the Guthrie, one of America’s most esteemed theatres, whose artistic director is committed to developing new work, and the Actors Theatre of Louisville, with its long history of important new plays and playwrights, will be involved in bringing the chosen Manifesto to life. I hope that Carl will want to abandon her negative perception of what she calls “our behemoth institutions with their repressive powers,” and that London will come to regard his rhetorical cry, “Where are the theatres worthy of these artists?” as somewhat hyperbolic, since the glass that is half full promises well-equipped stages, experienced staffs, practiced audiences, in-place administrative systems—the protection of an institution able and interested to embrace new thought.
While our institutions may not currently be satisfying all the needs and expectations of artists, it’s only through and with them that there’s any hope for growth. In both a Marxist sense and a practical, theatrical one, only the institutional theatres possess the “means of production” necessary to carry the work forward. Acquiring these took labor, love, grit and guts, as well as an act of large imagination sustained over a long period of time. There is accumulated wisdom within the institutional theatre. Suspecting or under-valuing these theatres as partners would be more than foolhardy and would demonstrate to the world an unfortunate lack of historical perspective. All of us have to listen up, not just the institutions.
Nothing is so irresistible as a good example. If the time is right, one or two examples can become two or four, can become eight or twelve, and so on. Transformation via contagion is the evolutionary pattern of the resident theatre movement.
The only way to begin something is to begin it. The only way to change something is to go yourself, not send someone else. You may not want to grab hold of your destiny; you may want someone to hand your destiny to you, while meanwhile you can keep on railing against your unjust fate. That would be too bad; there’s so much future in the present moment.
I, too, send out a Call. It’s not as resonant as the other Call and won’t reach as far, but it could evoke an immediate response, and it’s achievable within current circumstances. I call out to a leading American playwright whom the world admires and trusts to step up to the plate and to take on the responsibilities of artistic directorship of the next theatre that’s looking for one and wants to devote three-quarters of its repertory to new work.
Our playwrights seem to be the most angry; the sense of exclusion, of disempowerment, seems strongest among them. Since their art is seminal to all the other arts, if it can be empowered to flourish, the other arts will bloom along with it. Beneath “the rage of powerlessness” noted in one of the articles can lie a deep and rich source of creative power, but it can be released only by opportunity. A director, designer or actor as artistic leader can surely provide this opportunity and each has done so. But a playwright-leader is one of their own and could serve them with a special understanding. The playwright whose authenticity is already established and whose empathy is assured carries a natural authority with other playwrights. Is it to be an impromptu table reading, a workshop, a lab production in an informal space, a full production—which is best for the playwright? The “workshopped-to-death” syndrome will be resolved by someone who has already been there, done that. The act of “auditioning” will have a different intention; from a test, a judgment, it will become an exploration, part of the overall process.
A number of our theatres focus very successfully on new work, but their relationship to the world’s classics is casual, if they produce them at all. I would hope that a playwright’s theatre would find the classics essential to its lab/teaching component: No playwright, no artist, was born yesterday; every artist stands on the shoulders of other artists working in other forms in other times. Classics in new adaptations and translations are new works and, representing profound excavations of the human spirit, belong in any theatre that claims to be contemporary.
In the work of a theatre, the playwright provides the scaffold of meaning and intention to which all the other arts attach. In performance, the actor is at the center; theatre as a performing art is an art of experience. Through the flesh and blood of the actor, the playwright comes alive, no matter when she lived. Playwrights and actors are natural companions, creating in a different way but always symbiotically. Anton Chekhov wrote to the company of the Moscow Art Theatre: “Never be afraid of an author. An actor is a free artist. You must create an image different from the author’s. When the two images—the author’s and the actor’s—fuse into one, then an artistic work is created.” There are soft rustles in the air; the idea of acting companies is blowing in again (and, of course, in a few theatres the idea has never left). Could it be that the playwright, actor, director could come together in a place in such a way as to form a dreamed-of golden triangle?
There will be a board who will understand the precarious nature of the undertaking and yet find it irresistible. The notion of research and development will be familiar to them; they will understand that it takes a lot of chaff to yield the wheat, that without bad plays there’s no field from which the good ones can emerge. One doesn’t know if the idea rates as a million-dollar idea that could raise a million (or whatever that is in current) dollars, but it’s not beyond imagining that it could. The budget has to be large enough to support the goals, otherwise fear will take over from imagination yet another time. “Art requires luxury, even abundance,” wrote Tolstoy. Indeed!
There is a level of fantasy to my line of thought, for is there an established playwright who would set aside his own writing for the arduous, time-consuming life of an artistic director? A playwright is the most solo of all theatre artists, while the artistic director belongs to the entire society of the theatre, last to herself. But there needs to be but one of you who hears the call. Sui generis, the example that occurs only once. And what follows is up to the others.
I was given for Christmas Mel Gussow’s book Conversations with Arthur Miller. Here, from a conversation in 1986, is Miller’s response to a question from Gussow about his use of time:
If I had a theatre that I was connected to, a theatre of my peers, a working theatre with a good group of actors, I probably would have written a number of more plays. I had one experience like that and that was before Lincoln Center collapsed. I had done After the Fall, and Harold Clurman came to me and said, “Look, we’ve got to have another play. Do you have anything else? And I wrote Incident at Vichy. And it worked out magically; there was a part for every actor in the company. That never occurred to me. There was an excitement about it. You didn’t have to run around finding producers…. It’s very important. It’s a defense against the outside. “We’re all in this together.”
Yes, we are.
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