I’ve been wondering about us…
And artist institutions.
Not only as creators of or sites for creating products, but as entire organisms that participate in the making and remaking of the world.
What’s particular to us? What are we as makers, as a community of makers alongside what we make?
Especially in these days, with a global movement growing underfoot—barely detectable, like the civil rights movement circa 1930s—sprouts are coming up all over the world. People are digging in and “just flipping it" as my friend Mark Russell would say. “Flipping the value systems.” An economy based on the protection of people over capital? Why not? (The solidarity economy movement, Mondragon, etc.). Granting the earth the same rights as individuals? Let’s make that law (Bolivia). Replacing police forces and prisons with alternative practices? Would we still be safe? Let’s see (the transformative justice movement).
Where am I in all this? No, that’s not it.... Where are we? (Everything takes a village). Me and my fellow art makers. My tender comrades.
When I moved to New York City in the early ’80s, I came expecting to be sitting in cafés (Cino, not Starbucks) smoking cigarettes and arguing with other art makers over aesthetics and intentions, the nature of our place in social and political landscapes, audiences, and art itself. Instead I found myself with theater makers at restaurants I couldn’t really afford wondering how this one or that one got that job or becoming anxious and envious that this one or that one actually got that job. Getting invited to the table became the reason to be here, even while I wondered about the structure of the table and the nature of the invitation. Even while I sensed that, in fact, many of us were silently wondering the same things and we knew it. But this was reality; we had to be realistic if we were going to be able to work. “Just let us in,” we thought—and then we’ll see. As the careers of many colleagues blossomed, I found myself more confused by what “getting in” meant to me. And though I struggled (and still do) with the frame of “sour grapes” and self-doubt and whether or not I was/am a good enough artist, I came to understand that what I really wanted to do with the time of my life couldn’t be satisfied by having gotten “in” to whatever “in” was. And these were Reagan and Bush years which made things worse. Meanwhile, I thought those times were a perfect storm for us to show up in passionate numbers to make some noise—which we didn’t. (I was flummoxed during the NEA Four debacle… there was no significant we to fight the fallout of this.)
So I tried to leave the theater and went back to school part-time to become a doctor. But the closer I got to med school, the more I was drawn back into why I wanted to leave the theater, wondering more deeply about art and the artists who make it—what was our righteous place in this world?
Our capacity to invite people to come together is in the DNA of our work. But we don’t extend the imagination of our “making” to our invitations to come to our work. Why are we gathering people in the first place? How do we consider that seriously? Not as a marketing gimmick, or—godhelpus—yet another argument for the “significance” of art, but as a means to examine how we as makers and the works we make participate intentionally and relevantly in the fabric of a citizenry.
In 1994, I quit my studies to open The Foundry as a “place” where artists could make rigorous and singular theatrical works and where we could come together as a community to consider these questions. If I was wondering about this, I knew lots of people must be. And over these eighteen years, rigorous, confounding, intentional, and glorious theater has indeed been made at The Foundry—indeed it has. I looked to our Dialogues as a place where artists could gather to germinate these and other questions. (We’ve been hosting public dialogue series since our inception—separate from our shows—as a way for artists to participate in some of the “big” questions being formulated around how the world works and doesn’t and how it might work better.) And while the Dialogues have been seminal to the evolution of the company, I’m perplexed by the small numbers of artists who regularly attend them—though they come in significant numbers to our shows. I knew we were extending perhaps unfamiliar invitations and I know how “busy” everyone is; still, I thought—in fact I think it even more now—that there are a lot of us wondering where theater and its makers fit in the world. We’ve been wondering about this since time immemorial. (And it galls me how this inquiry gets translated to audience development!)
Many of us have worked assiduously to develop expression, and perspectives, and aesthetic responses, and proposals—and to share those, and test them, and wonder about them. And there’s that immortal fly in the soup: we need our egos to do that work; we need to be our most open selves, our most individual selves. And our egos become misshapen when they’re fed and nurtured to be object producers, which is what, in large part, we are, and what most of our theaters are stuck having to sell. Sontag once said in an interview, when she was asked what she was working on, that she doesn't like to talk about projects; she likes to talk about art. We don’t do that much. Instead we talk about the project we’re doing now or next, which may lead to a discussion of art, but not often. It more likely leads to bouts of insomnia-ridden, maniacal self-doubt or worse, jealously. We think about our work one project at a time, not about our lives in the theater. We’ve subsumed competition within our work in order to get produced, to get this job or the next job. Not exactly the most hospitable circumstances for deeper conversation or building community or fostering meaningful engagement with the world.
What are we as a community? We who traffic in holding aloft something that isn’t there until it is—and who do so again and again. How does that capacity extrapolate itself beyond the “products” we make? How is that capacity part of a world that gets made every day in the accumulated living of our lives? How do we as artists participate in making the world with what is unique or particular about us?
It’s confounding, almost impossible, to address this within the rubric of our market-driven culture where what is unique about us becomes commodified in seconds flat (or doesn’t, depending on one’s level of “success”). Where theaters and theater makers are challenged to be realistic—realistic?—in relation to the marketplace. Realism has different applications, a different set of rules than art making—perhaps even necessary opposing ones. Plus we are responsible to the people we invite to come with us into our realities. The nonprofit arts sector arose in part to address this, but given that the US is one of the only prosperous countries in the world that doesn’t have an arts and culture cabinet post or ministry as part of its government, just how serious can this be?
I was set free in 2005 when I went to the World Social Forum and then more so once we started building relationships with local grassroots social justice communities. It was here I kept finding more and more people engaged in what I’ve come to call an “ecology” of intentions and purpose. What I mean by that is that though the most obvious focus of their work is organizing around specific pressing issues and campaigns, this is only one part of how these communities are galvanizing themselves. Saving someone from eviction, for example, also means providing public education for a whole community about rent laws and, by extension, how the economy works on their lives, which in turn means providing daycare and feeding people, which in turn means new approaches to accessing healthy and affordable food, and so on. And having just completed This Is How We Do It—where we gathered for two days with some of the most radically comprehensive new world builders—we learned that all of them define what they are creating through this broader ecology of focus. When Daniel Tygel presented on the solidarity economy, he made it clear that this movement was defined, from its inception, within a multidimensional framework. That alongside creating a new, more just economic system (which by the way is thriving) it was essential to iris out—to widen the frame—and build their work and goals within cultural and political dimensions as well as economic ones. This holistic, intersectional approach is rampant in innovative social justice movements all across the world. And it’s spawning new orientations of leadership, decision making, and perhaps most simply, proposing new kinds of relationships among human beings.
So what is our dimensionality as art makers, and what are the ecologies of the theaters that host us? How are we widening our work and the contexts that contain it? (This is what I imagine we’d be talking about now at those theaters—in lieu of café tables and cigarettes. HowlRound is one of few public spaces for us to build conversation together, even if only virtually.) The market indicators we’ve saddled ourselves with have nothing to do with what brought many of us to this profession in the first place. But we accepted them… into our practice, thought we needed to do so to get the gig, to get the press, to get the best artists, to have the highest subscription numbers, etc. Meanwhile this has increasingly infantilized us as artists in our own field—and artists have allowed themselves to be infantilized—let’s face it, it’s way easier. We rarely (if ever) participate in the budgeting process of our productions; we aren’t part of inviting people to come (some call this marketing); we bristle if we’re asked to help raise the dough for our projects. It’s a two-way dead end. The institutions need our partnership but don’t ask because they’re afraid to share power with us; and we don’t offer our partnership because we’ve come to believe our art is enough, that it isn’t our responsibility to do more. (Though I want to give a shout out to playwright Young Jean Lee, who has so powerfully defied this dead end and taken charge of the production of her work.) If we don’t build agency in our own field, we have even less capacity to consider how we can participate as part of a citizenry. I opened the Foundry so many lives ago, and I’m still asking the questions I started with. And still waiting for all the artists who must be wondering about these things too.
I miss you all. No kidding. But eighteen years is really nothing—especially when thinking about the making and remaking of the world. This is a forever invitation.
How do we widen the stage of our work
— of ourselves making it
— of ourselves as a community
— and of ourselves as a community that is rigorous about what we do in the world?
We have a lot to do to locate ourselves.
…Where shall we meet?