If the very fabric of our thought had not changed, we would not have been able to change reality. --Zelda Fichandler
Our field was born of a dream, and that dream created a revolution. Fifty years ago, a group of artists dared to believe that they could create theater outside the confines of Broadway and New York that could respond to the needs of art, rather than the needs of commerce. They wanted to produce the classics and new work Broadway was no longer willing to produce and, in doing so, reclaim their art form. It took time and imagination; they were working in a void and had to start from scratch creating the structures and funding to support their art. But they did it, and the rich tapestry of the regional theater movement was the result.
Today, it is time for a new dream and a new revolution. Propelled by the forces of technology and globalization, we live in a radically changed—and changing—world. Boundaries are dissolving between art forms, between art and audiences, between countries and cultures and between actual space and cyberspace. The Internet is breaking down historic modes of production and changing peoples’ expectations of how they interact with each other and with the arts. A new generation of artists has entered the field, many of whom are rejecting our traditional theater structures as too hierarchal and restrictive and want to create new ways of working. And, although hard to believe, for the first time since our founding, we actually have the possibility of major new funding, as the great individual wealth amassed in this country during the past few decades starts to flow into philanthropy.
This is an environment filled with remarkable possibilities for the American theater. Today, we have the opportunity to change the lives of our artists and audiences, to revitalize our art form and to create revolutionary new institutional and funding structures. But to do this, we need to learn to dream again, to free ourselves from established attitudes and historical constraints and open our minds and imaginations to new and exciting possibilities.
But we’ve become handicapped in our ability to dream. As our field matured, two problems emerged that theaters weren’t able to overcome. One is an imbalance between artists and theater institutions. As theaters grew, they increasingly controlled the resources – the funding and access to audiences – which artists needed to do their work. At the same time, artists became hired workers, jobbed in on a play-by-play basis. Having little to say in the theater’s financial or artistic decisions, artists lost authority over their art. As a result, artists started working for institutions, rather than the other way around, a reversal of the founders’ dream and a striking change in the mindset of what role artists would play in the theater world.
The other problem theaters couldn’t solve was that their sources of funding weren’t able to keep up with the growth of the field. Particularly in hard times, a squeeze on revenues left theaters open to commercial pressures to cut costs and provide more audience-pleasing work. This squeeze led to two other imbalances creeping into the field that were also alien to our founding. Traditional audiences became accustomed to being consumers, rather than collaborators, and we became accustomed to accepting that the art form was tied to the exigencies of funding and institutional constraints, rather than to the vitality of its times.
These three assumptions—that audiences are consumers, that artists work for institutions and that the art form is tied to its financial and institutional limitations—limit our ability to dream. How can we dream if the fundamental elements of our art are so constrained? And how can we dream if we don’t believe in our hearts that change is possible in the first place?
As Zelda Fichandler, one of our founders and always our most articulate spokesperson, said on looking back on the history of the field, the founders could not have created a revolution or changed reality if they had not changed “the very fabric of our thought.” That is our challenge today: to change the very fabric of our thought, to release our art from the restraints of the past and imagine new realities—a new humanism for audiences, a new freedom for artists, and a new vitality for the art.
Imagining New Realities
It is by a sense of possibilities opening before us that we become aware of constrictures that hem us in and of burdens that oppress us. -- John Dewey
A New Humanism for Audiences
Audiences are being offered new tools of participation to both enhance and alter their experience of the theater. Can they also be offered a fundamentally new role in the artistic process itself? Is there a deeper value of humanism that extends the mantle of creativity from the state to encompass the audience, so that audiences become fuller collaborators in the artistic process?
The Internet has changed how we communicate in our culture. Internet communication is two-way—there are no fixed barriers of entry. Anyone can go online and communicate with anyone else; it doesn’t matter what you look like or whether you have any particular professional or critical credentials. And there are no fixed boundaries for the content put on the Internet. Anyone can upload musings, photos, mash-ups or original art. People are now becoming active makers of content, rather than passive receivers of it.
For the arts, this new mode of communication is creating a fundamental change in expectations of what an artistic experience is and where and how this experience takes place. The picture of a well-dressed audience entering a theater at eight o’clock, passively watching a play on stage and then clapping and going home is beginning to feel restrictive and old. Dropping in at an arts center where work from different cultures and disciplines is presented on stages, on the Web and on the streets seems more in tune with our changing times. Audiences today expect more control over the kinds of art they see and when and where they see them, and many theaters have accommodated this expectation by providing in-depth information about productions ahead of time, developing applications for audience members to use on their phones or other handheld devices during or after performances, and asking audiences for input into season planning and other activities at the theater.
But there is a deeper opportunity for change that goes beyond repackaging the theatrical experience to reconceiving the role of the audience in the act of artistic creation itself. In his book Art as Experience, the American philosopher John Dewey argued that artists and audiences are not only natural, but necessary, collaborators in the artistic process. Just as artists bring their fullest self to creating art, audiences must bring their fullest selves to experiencing it. It is where art and audiences meet that the act of artistic imagination becomes complete. An unread book, an unseen play or an unheard symphony doesn’t find its fullest expression, its true life, without an audience. The problem, as Dewey saw it, was that too often the work was dull, so it didn’t engage the full potential of audiences, or that the “idea” of art had become so compartmentalized in people that they brought only part of themselves to the experience, truncating their side of the partnership.
The director Peter Brook expresses this in a different way in the book Conversations with Peter Brook. He says that the best kind of theatrical experience for him as a director is one where he wrestles with a muscular play, but then only goes so far, suggesting much but not telling all, leaving the full act of imagination to the audience. Both authors recognize the innate potential of an audience to respond to art with imagination and creativity. And both believe in a collaboration that is an act of communion between artists and audience in the very act of artistic expression.
A New Freedom for Artists
The Getty Museum in California recently commissioned Anne Bogart’s SITI Company, a long established ensemble theater, to create a new interpretation of The Trojan Women, Euripides’ devastating portrait of war. The Company was provided six weeks of rehearsal, tech and preview time before the play opened for a month’s run in the museum’s outdoor amphitheater on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Joining the actors and director for much of this time were the play’s composer, costume designer and lighting designer, as well as experts on history, archeology and art from the Getty’s staff. It was a challenging commission—to explore the meaning of war in our war-torn world—and the artists dug deep into character, form and staging. Beginning each day with their own form of training, they drew on their years of collaborative work together to build this new piece. The experience was exhilarating and exhausting, but they were able to create a memorable performance.
This is an ideal way for artists to work—rigorously, collaboratively, and with enough time for the artistic process to breathe and the work to come to maturity. But this is a luxury and not the way most artists work in this country. Most theater artists today work for the traditional theaters that have come to define the field. And it is here that our history has created its most difficult legacy.
As successful as these theaters have been in bringing their work to communities all across the country and as much as they contribute to the economic, educational and artistic health of these communities, they ultimately created an operating model disadvantageous to artists. The institutions built to support artists have come to dominate them, reversing their role in the theater and creating the assumption that artists work for institutions, rather than the other way around.
This assumption has become so entrenched in our thinking that we can’t see it any more. Many of our traditional theaters are genuinely trying to respond to the needs of artists. Serious thought is being given to playwrights, and a number of programs have been developed to include them more closely in the development of new work, such as Arena Stage’s American Voices New Play Institute. Some theaters are also breaking down the model of subscription seasons by considering each play a separate project that needs its own audience and then involving artists more closely in these projects. And Theatre Communications Group, the national service organization for nonprofit theaters, has spent over a year asking artists how their relationships with theater institutions could be improved. But, as constructive as these efforts are, they all unconsciously accept the imbalance as their starting point.
One of the most painful things we have learned in recent years is how difficult it has become for artists to defend themselves or their values in hard times. When budgets get pressed, as they so often do these days, smaller plays, shorter rehearsal periods and hiring film and TV stars all become accepted strategies for survival. But how can artists create their best work under such compromised conditions? And what about artists pay? Most artists, even after all these years, still cannot make a living wage in the theater. When you think about it, it is shocking that the field knowingly accepts this diminished artistry, laying it at the feet of necessity. But necessity is what you define it to be. Millions of dollars continue to be spent on constructing and sustaining new theater buildings, even under recessionary conditions.
As our field decentralizes and alternative ways of working open up, artists have more choice in how and where they work. Internet art, multi-media art, community art and the growing number of ensemble companies all provide opportunities for artists to gain control over their own artistry.
But the most dramatic change that can happen is for people to recognize that institutions should work for artists, not the other way around. Even without new funding or other outside changes, understanding this would create a revolution in itself. And rather than being an assault on our traditional theaters, such a change in thinking could be a catalyst for opening up new and innovative ways to create theater—a renaissance from within.
In his book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Wassily Kandinsky said that our best artists are prophets who see ahead of the rest of us and lead us forward, but that, to be a prophet, artists must be free. They must be free to follow where their artistic imaginations lead them, unencumbered by inhibiting attitudes and expectations. We are short on prophets today. Some of our older artists remember a time when artists worked in an environment of more freedom. But many of our best artists now are working on the margins, entering more exciting fields like multi-media art or being socialized into the world of traditional theater. We must create a more fertile environment for prophets.
A New Vitality for the Art
What about the art? Why is so much of our art small when we live in such big times? Why does so much of it feel old when we live in revolutionary times? Is our imagination so hobbled by the long years of financial constraint that we can’t see what to do? Is this why we are producing so much Shakespeare—to fill the desire for bigger, more epic work?
We are currently celebrating the 150th anniversary of our Civil War. Some years ago, the Chinese artist Cai Quo-Qiang joined with other artists in an event entitled “The Long March: a Visual Walking Display” in which each artist created a different dialogue with chosen sites along the actual route of Mao’s famous Long March of 1934-35. They created a contemporary interaction with that event; in effect, they interrogated it. Wouldn’t it be exciting if a group of American artists did the same with our Civil War?
Recently, the Belarus Free Theatre visited this country and performed their play Being Harold Pinter, which combined language from Pinter about violence with the actual words of people being held prisoner or tortured under the repressive Belarus regime. Audiences were electrified by the sense of being part of this brutal, current event, particularly since these talented young artists were themselves being persecuted. Although the story was told in the guise of artifice, it was viscerally real. The first work is a big, epic work, the second an intimate, personal one; but both are alive with the relevance of their times.
Just as our artists have been subdued in recent years, so has our artistry. Every era has its full share of mediocre art that is quietly lost in the midst of time. And every era creates entertaining art that doesn’t aim to be revolutionary, but remains an important part of the field. But for an art form to retain its vitality, its leading edge must change as its world changes; it must maintain a dialogue with its times. When we look at our main stages, too often the art feels stuck in the twentieth century. Although we have more video, more technology and more site-specific work, these are changes in appearance, not in substance. We have plenty of novelty today. What we don’t have is breathtaking new work that shatters our imaginations and shows us that, in fact, we can have a powerful new dialogue with the world in which we live.
To make that leap forward, we need to stop accepting that our art is limited by funding and institutional constraints. A great play can be performed on an empty stage or in an empty parking lot, and, today, an audience can be gathered through the Internet with just a few clicks of a mouse. We suffer from a lack of imagination and courage, not a lack of funds. Although we think we can cajole audiences with pleasing work, what they really want is more relevant work. Our field is filled with new ideas and visionary artists with energy and ambition, but we repress them within our old assumptions and attitudes. We need to free our art into the vitality of its times.
Changing Old Worlds to New
The Giving Pledge is an effort to invite the wealthiest individuals and families in America to commit giving the majority of their wealth to the philanthropic causes and charitable organizations of their choice either during their lifetime or after their death. --GivingPledge.org
A New Logic of Funding
Due to the accumulation of wealth in this country, we may be entering the greatest age of individual philanthropy since the time of Mellon, Rockefeller and Carnegie. Recently, Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet created an initiative called the “The Giving Pledge,” which asks billionaires to pledge half of their wealth to charity. In meetings with prospective donors, they said that “We live in an exciting time for philanthropy when innovative approaches and advances in technology have redefined what’s possible.” In expressing their own philosophies of giving, many of the potential donors saw their giving as part of “venture philanthropy,” a participatory philanthropy that aims to be at the cutting edge of investing in new ways of addressing societal problems such as poverty, heath care and education. So far, almost seventy people have signed the pledge, and Fortune magazine estimates that this initiative alone will add up to $300 billion to philanthropy in the coming years.
When you add the potential of other wealthy people to give, the transfer of wealth from aging baby boomers and the just developing potential of Internet giving, there are startling possibilities for new philanthropic initiatives. We have always depended on political and voluntary giving, but what we need today is a new logic of funding: self-sustaining funding that is fluid and flexible and can be invested in new ways of working and new kinds of art.
What if three or four of the “Giving Pledge” billionaires each donated one billion dollars to endow a new private Arts Trust that gave funds directly to artists or groups of artists to choose how they wanted to work, or to new kinds of institutional structures? Such a Trust could have the same impact on the field today that the NEA had in its early years. Or what if a group of technology billionaires invested in a revolutionary new Web-based arts education program that used video game technology to bring the theater, dance, music and poetry of different cultures to millions of students around the world in their own languages at little cost? With a program like this, the Internet could become a world platform for arts education.
Or what if a group of wealthy people from different countries endowed an International Institute of the Arts that funded not only new festivals and exchanges of art but the creation of art by artists from different cultures working together? Such an initiative would change the future of global art. These are the kinds of new funding structures we need to underwrite the big changes that can take place in the arts. And they are possible if we can attract even a small part of this new philanthropy.
A New Diversity of Structures
Just as it is true that new funding is possible, it is also true that we can create new structures with the same imagination and ingenuity as our founders. For example, we could build multimedia cultural centers in our cities where entrepreneurial curators could bring together a wide range of creative work that spanned different art forms and cultures. Perhaps this cultural center would exist in a new kind of open and decentralized architecture that spread out in different directions with many wings and courtyards. In one wing, theater, dance and musical artists might be collaborating with their technological counterparts to create a new Hamlet or La Boheme that will be staged at the center, but also streamed to schools, offices and homes as part of the city’s “New Classics” program. In another wing, master musicians from Japan, Chile and the United States might be helping talented young people develop their craft, while collaborating on a new composition of their own.
In a courtyard, senior citizens from different parts of the community might be having a story circle that will lead to a play devised and performed by them. And, in the main atrium of the center, a festival of award-winning theater and dance work from around the country might be taking place. People would drop in for lunch, or after school or work, or in the evening, always welcome to join the many activities going on, with the understanding that the experience of art is an open and accessible experience that can be part of their lives.
We could build a stronger infrastructure for ensemble companies. Ensemble companies, where artists control their own work, are increasingly the model of choice for new artists entering the field. Some groups like the Rude Mechs, Elevator Repair Service and Culture Clash have gained considerable recognition in recent years and are starting to be booked by traditional theaters as part of their seasons. And some funders, such as the New England Foundation for the Arts and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, are providing new and adventuresome funding for them. But most ensemble companies remain small, underfunded and underappreciated, still working on the margins of the field.
What if we created new consortiums of ensemble theaters who shared a common overhead structure of fundraising, marketing and other administrative functions? Such consortiums could create economies of scale for these companies, as well as bringing them more recognition. What if four or five of these companies banded together in a new kind of subscription season that toured the country, introducing them to new audiences and again raising their visibility? What if potential investors saw ensemble companies as the leading edge for change in the field and decided to invest in them? This might change the whole ecology of the field.
There are also many ways our large, traditional theaters can decentralize and change. What if a major theater decided to take its hierarchal, pyramid structure and flatten and extend it out into the shape of a wheel? At the hub of the wheel would be the artistic and administrative leadership, but all the functions of the theaters would move to the spokes radiating out from this hub. And each spoke would have a high degree of autonomy and would include both artists and non-artists in its mix. Isn’t it likely that there would be a new release of imagination, a new agency for artists and perhaps some exciting new art?
A New Dialogue of Change
We also need a new dialogue of change. It is always amazing how eagerly we put provocative dialogue on stage, being incensed if donors or board members or even audiences protest, yet are unable to have honest and provocative conversations among ourselves. We don’t seem to respect our own ability to create open dialogue like we respect—and honor—it in our art.
We have been having conversations in recent years about many things; about audiences, artists and the need for new models. But these conversations have usually taken place within certain boundaries and have not challenged the basic assumptions constraining us. We need a new dialogue that is respectful of the past but open to fundamental change, a dialogue that challenges basic assumptions and explores real alternatives, one that is not circumscribed by established institutional thinking and one that is based on generosity and respect, so that everyone feels secure in voicing their concerns and ideas. And we need to recognize that change is hard; old identities and habits of thought get fractured, and people lose their grounding as the new takes over from the old. So we need to conduct this dialogue with as much grace and understanding as possible.
A New Revolution?
We started with a revolution. But it wasn’t just a revolution in structure and funding, or even in geography. It was a revolution in thought. If we can change our thinking, if we can restore our basic values and believe that things can be different, if we have the imagination and tenacity to attract new funding and build new structures, if our theaters aren’t too rigid and our artists aren’t too socialized to change, if we can ignore the naysayers, if we can dream big and want to create big work—maybe we too will create a revolution, one built on the values of our founders but transformed for today’s radically new world.
But we have to start with dreaming, for dreaming isn’t about providing blueprints for change. Dreaming is about having the courage our founders had to open up space in our imagination to create alternative realities. That is our challenge today.