by Ben Cameron
Photo by Mark Garvin
If this conference has reminded us of nothing else, it has demonstrated that it is a thrilling, perplexing, dynamic, confounding, frightening, exhilarating time to be in this business – an emotional roller coaster that has been evident in the tenor of our conversations, in the animation and curiosity and passion of our time together.I heard trustees speak with confidence that our medium can, indeed must, survive transition into streaming and digital transmission – and the equally passionate conviction of artists that it must not do so but must preserve the integrity of the live, first-hand experience.
I sat transfixed during the subtle performance politics of Douglas Rushkoff, with his music stand and stool establishing him as an intellectual jazz artist, riffing on the implications of this new digital Renaissance, insisting on suspicion and irony as earmarks of a young audience, urging us to stand beside the transparency of our medium rather than mask it in the illusory mysticism of media programming, reminding us of our work as not-for-profit artists, in making us aware of the negotiations underway for consensus reality, playing the jester and criticizing the king without getting our heads cut off.
I watched panels of experts from three different fields challenge us to have the guts to ask hard questions, grapple with digitally driven impact on artistic integrity and income, acknowledge the insistence of children to confront the "real thing" rather than the intermediary.
I heard Zelda Fichandler proclaim the eternal presence of problems to confront us and test our collective creativity even as she questioned our old structures.
I watched Jennifer Tipton struggle to come to clarity even as she thought about technology – a struggle deeply powerful in itself – and proclaim the newfound artistic advantage of being able to design in time.
And I witnessed with awe the clarity of Thomas Friedman, his description of the future as "cultural Darwinism on steroids" with massive genocide to those without a strategy.
On the heels of this stirring challenge, I watched us move to Open Space where, initially at least, many of us ran from the implications of digital culture to confront topics and wondered whether our other problems – real and powerful – were so powerful that they obliterated the call to the digital culture, or whether we, like Jennifer, found the issues perplexingly elusive, whether we were not more comfortable with ongoing field conditions than with the gaze into the confounding digital future we had been offered.
And I found myself most powerfully struck that perhaps this discomfort stemmed, not from our ignorance of technology itself, but from the repeated suggestion that the notion of authority, of "the wall," has disappeared – that for our generation, raised to fight over who should be the authorities, we arrive at a moment in our lives when the notion of authority itself is under siege.
In short, both explicitly and implicitly, I have heard a growing, but still relatively faint, chorus of confidence and excitement, cast against a more major key of bewilderment, anxiety, uncertainty, confusion. A number of us, in subtle and unspoken ways, probably long to return to a simple, slower time, to a more simple set of relations, to more grounded experience. But as Jennifer Tipton and Zelda Fichandler both said on opening night, "We cannot go back."
So let me also stand here for a few minutes and try to make sense of where I think we are in line with our theme of the role of theatre in a digital culture.
For me, the most provocative reading on this topic has been Ivan Illich, in his book In The Vineyard of the Text, which explores seismic changes in human history, radical moments of radical human redefinition. He reminds us that at one point, history was a collective, aural activity – songs were sung, chants were chanted and the community came together to remember, to recollect, to preserve what was most vital. Indeed, early teachers conceived of memory as a complex mental architecture, where memories were stored in specific "mental rooms" that were visited for memories to be retrieved. But with the invention of the alphabet and especially the printing press, history became a printed, private, largely visual activity – and with that change came shifts in our very conceptions of history and memory, in our sense of the individual, of the whole complex of social relationships, all shifting and changing in ways that could not possibly have been foreseen. Today, we stand at the threshold of other such seismic changes – changes in our perceptual frameworks, changes especially in notions of authority. It is not that computers and the digital age are good or bad; it is simply that they are. With their increasing dominance, we are entering a time of change that will reverberate far beyond what we can anticipate – and our preference for despair, anxiety or even confidence is perhaps less relevant than the power of inevitability – and how we will greet this change: with openness and flexibility, or with resistance and protest.
Already the very social contract is changing – has changed, as best-sellers like Bowling Alone remind us, and perhaps we have no further to look than our own Theatre Facts to see the rubber meeting the road. As those of you who have read the report know, fiscal year 2000 marked the first time that single ticket sales produced more revenue than subscriptions – a shift that occurred both in aggregate but also in five of the six budget categories into which we divide the field. While one year does not a trend make, and while this may be an uncharacteristic blip, it is also possibly the beginning manifestation of trends we have long been eyeing warily – the reluctance of people to make commitments in a longer time frame, the increased competition for leisure time, the increased likelihood for consumers to make decisions based on market product rather than make relationships with organizations at all. And while economically this shift has profound resonance – far more money is expended to attract a single ticket buyer than to renew a subscriber – it has profound programming implications as well: our ability to produce unknown, new plays has often been feasible precisely because subscriptions both provide the economic cushion and insure the minimum audience to make such work possible. If subscriptions are diminishing, what will this mean for what we choose to produce? Questions that are especially pressing as we annually witness the percentage of the contributed dollar going to the arts eroding.
This increasing inability to perceive value outside of one’s own personal taste or need is perhaps the most disturbing theme in reading the new generation of thinkers, and bespeaks an erosion, if not disappearance, of a true philanthropic and larger social impulse. Andrei Cherny, twenty-five-year-old head speech writer for Al Gore and author of The Next Deal, describes the emerging citizen as having "the growing expectation that the world be customized and fit their individual preferences." He notes the emergence of individualized cybernewspapers that transmit only the stories related to topics the individual has pre-identified as being of interest – narrowing the field of interests, shielding from exposure to the unpleasant or unexpected. Not unlike the new video machines that will discern our tastes based on what we already watch and then select for us those shows that fit our predetermined profiles. Even among older Americans, the move to repeal the estate tax speaks, to some degree, to this increasingly endorsed wave of self, rather than social, interest.
Paulina Borsook’s "technolibertarians" – a term designed to evoke the basic libertarian orientation of a new technologically driven power elite – fall squarely into line with these trends. Her sobering statistics – the negligible and dropping participation by cyber leaders in charitable giving; the collapse of organizations designed to encourage cyber philanthropy; the lack of stigma for failing to participate in the larger society; and indeed our naivete in expecting a market-driven generation to understand the value of art outside of the marketplace or believe in the need to support any activity that does not address or interest them directly – are deeply troubling to those of us in not-for-profits, dependent on philanthropic contributions.
On bleak days, it is hard to be in the theatre and be optimistic. I see with despair the decline of civil discourse; the demonizing of political difference; the increased sense of avarice and entitled wealth implicit in repeals of tax legislation; the absence of a sense of stewardship that was once the earmark of an enlightened ruling class, much less a great civilization.
I read with horror in The New York Times about a multi-million-dollar training program for young conservatives, where one speaker asked, "How do we know you are sincere?" and was applauded for his answer: "Because I appear sincere." An appearance attributed to astute training in elongating vowels to show deep empathy and clipping consonants to demonstrate anger.
I try not to yield to hysterical references to Orwell seventeen years too late, but still I read with amazement the election-year rhetoric, where a candidate who leads the popular vote is accused of attempting to steal the election when he asks that all votes continue to be counted – and am appalled that few challenge the image of theft.
I, most pointedly as an arts advocate, am chilled by Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor, who writes, "The greatest threat to freedom of expression in many modern societies comes not from overt controls by oppressive regimes, but from a more fiercely competitive market in which buyers can so easily switch to whatever they find more satisfying. Such a marketplace dictates with increasing ferocity what will be written, broadcast and researched. The public, deluged with what delights it and protected from what may cause it discomfort, is thus armored against what it may need to know."
In this shifting time, what does it mean to be a theatre? How will we survive? In such a world, what role does theatre play? What is the role of theatre in a digital culture?
Underlying this entire conference has been perhaps the biggest field question of all: How do we reward the aspirations of the future without dismantling the achievements of the past – a question that a 40th anniversary of achievement intersecting with a digital horizon invites? And from this flows a series of increasingly complex issues: How do we create organizations that can remain true to the spirit of the not-for-profit – a sector dedicated by definition to making an educational, social or cultural contribution to a community – even while we are forced increasingly to compete in an increasingly commercial marketplace? How do we create organizations nimble enough not only to embrace and attract leaders from new generations and new communities, but to respond, adapt and change to meet the insights these new leaders bring? How do we, in essence, both find the clarity to retain what is most vital to organizational strength, while finding the daring, the risk, the courage to undertake broad scale change?
I, for one, can be cautiously hopeful in light of a conversation with a grantmaker in northern California, who took strong exception to Borsook’s views. "This is a group of folks that want to do good," the grantmaker said. "Now it’s up to us to teach them how to do good and then show them where their money can make a difference."
I am fascinated by the research that suggests that the more time people spend on the Internet, the more depressed and lonely they become. Like many, I find hope in a faint choir of voices, hungering for sustained human interaction. In The New York Times of March 8, 2000, a story on Gen Xers entitled "Coming of Age, Seeking an Identity" led with a photo caption that quoted a twenty-five year old as saying, "What I don’t like is disposability, hyperspeed, consumption. What I want is more face to face interaction."
I worry only that our insistence that people driven by the web will need live human theatre as a result – an insistence that is often unrigorous and ill-defined – is perhaps an excessively romantic one, and that if it causes us to be complacent, to mindlessly behave in the future as we always have in the past, we will indeed be casualties in this changing world. The future calls on us to be at our most disciplined, our most probing, to think outside the box and be flexible and daring enough to embark in new directions.
If we are to survive:
We need more rigorous examination of our own organizational assumptions. Theatres today serve three basic primary purposes, even while I caution us that many theatres are hybrids to some degree. Many theatres exist to present a canon of great theatrical literature and accomplishment, whether this means the classic work of ancient Greece and the Elizabethans or the newer acknowledged work, recognized by Pulitzers or Tonys or even simply widespread word of mouth. Other theatres exist primarily to develop new work, to encourage new voices, to present on their stages, consistently, work that has never been seen before, making the literature of today and developing the artists of tomorrow. Still others exist primarily to give voice to a community – frequently a community that has been underserved or silenced for too long, whether it is a community of color or a community of women, a community of disabled artists or a gay/lesbian community, a community distinguished by rural heritage like the coal miners of Whitesburg, KY, or a community ignored in the urban landscape, like the Poverty Project of Los Angeles.
The organizational models that serve canon-based theatres, regardless of size, seem less suitable to many theatres who work with unknown titles and artists or within specific communities. The importance of individual contributions to our coffers is simply unfeasible for many such communities. For example, when we realize that charitable giving is largely a third generation, middle class activity – that for a first and second generation, "giving back" often means giving to the parents and grandparents who scraped together every nickel, dime and quarter to give us the college tuition that now gives us a new foothold that they didn’t have – and that we have yet to reach a third generation of a middle class in many communities we wish to serve. Similarly, the traditional 60:40 earned/contributed ratio may be quite unfeasible for organizations dealing in new work, in new forms, lacking recognizable titles, awards, larger social buzz. Being more thoughtful about the organizational assumptions that dominate us, being more open about the challenges and successes we are finding, being more articulate not only about budget size but about our primary impulses, will be important to us as we move forward, even while we recognize our mutual bonds, our collective ability to work together, the need of every community to have access to all three strains of work.
If we are to survive:
We need to constantly push ourselves to think of our work as part of a bigger picture. Innovation comes, not from within fields, but from outsiders. I am increasingly interested in seeing our organizational challenges in the context of larger social forces – the "special vulnerability of mid-sized theatres" as symptomatic of larger trends in the culture that has led to the stratification in the hotel industry, now characterized by Hyatts and bed and breakfasts, with precious little in between; of seeing our difficulty in retaining staff as part of the Department of Labor’s analysis showing that fifty percent of job hires now last six months or less in their job; or recognizing our failure in diversifying as symptomatic of larger, deeply rooted structures of racism that lead to a paucity of corporations of color, de facto segregation in religious celebration and restaurant patronage and even moviegoing – where even the same title attracts radically different audiences according to venue. And while our internal field dialogue with one another is imperative, I for one find special power in hearing global economists like Tom Friedman talk to us; I want to meet his super empowered individuals. And what might we learn from other fields and industries – from the travel industry about pricing apparatuses, for example – an industry that works far differently than ours, making it more expensive to fly the closer to departure you get, charging for changes, certainly never offering rush tickets or half-price on the day of flight? What can we learn from grass roots political campaigners about audience development? What can we learn from Starbucks about tapping into an undetected social hunger, making and creating social destinations of choice? And what can we learn from athletics and the field of popular music about cross-cultural cooperation and power redefinition?
If we are to survive:
We need to take better care of ourselves – a theme sounded in various ways by Jennifer and Zelda and Tom Friedman, among others. One of the great influences in my life has been Ronnie Brooks, a woman many of you have met through her facilitation work with us at White Oak, in Houston, or in sessions she did at our last conference in San Francisco. I remember Ronnie sharing with me a poll that revealed the three major regrets of retirees (those things they most regretted about their lives now that they were approaching their final years): that they did not spend more time in reflective thinking; that they did not take more risks; and that they were not clearer about the purpose of their lives – three lessons I find equally applicable to our organizations.
The idea of spending time in reflection will strike many of us as almost laughably absurd. With the exponential increase in our daily responsibilities, the idea of finding time to think about our work seems an impossibility. But, like Ronnie, I tend to believe that this is among the most pressing work we are called to do. For many of us, the challenge will be not in taking on this additional burden of thought, but in finding what it is we will put aside to make incorporation of regular reflection possible.
For those of us who have succeeded, has this success been achieved at the price of our own moderated artistic ambition? How deeply do we self-censor in selecting our plays? Scale aside – and how long now we have been looking for smaller cast, fewer set plays! – have we lost our own sense of urgency and risk – urgency that nourishes the art form, risk that is the defining catalyst that propels us beyond the serviceable to the memorable, from the pro forma to the profound, from the craftsman-like to the truly artistic? How often do we rise above the ongoing routine and stand back to seize what Tony Taccone calls Theatre of Urgency: vital, compelling, muscular urgent work that needs to be done? What is our risk tolerance, to borrow a financial term, and how do we expand that tolerance artistically and organizationally? And in our own lives, how do we continue to risk – knowing that growth and risk are inseparable, that friendships and marriage, for example, where there is no risk cannot grow?
And most pressing, what is the purpose of our lives? What are the purposes of our theatres? Clearly, we will all likely have very different answers to this question and will be unable to reach consensus – a failure that I actually find a cause for celebration rather than despair. Especially in this shifting world, I think we have three core purposes that we each serve.
For theatres, at least, I now believe that our purposes are threefold:
In a time of multi-tasking, of prioritizing, of bombardment of sensation rather than digestion of experience, we promote not merely hearing, but listening – intentional, deep, contracted social listening, the ability to truly hear.
In our constant exploration of what it means to be human, not from our own point of view, but as seen through the eyes of another, our insistence that we find value in seeing the world, touching the world, tasting the world through viewpoints other than our own, we cultivate and replenish an all too rapidly vanishing sense of social empathy – a habit that lies at the heart of any collective ability to converse and understand across political, racial and religious lines.
And, in our pursuit of works of collective imagination, we remind ourselves and others that there can be life other than as it is being led, that there are possibilities beyond the scope of our present reality, that every commonplace reality – from the wheel to the internet – began as a dream outside of the frame of life as it was then being lived.
As for the purposes of our individual lives, those answers are likely to be as unique as the people who sit here today – but our need to reach clarity is perhaps our most urgent collective need. In a field of long hours and negligible pay and minimal social appreciation, clarity in terms of our individual core values becomes more important than ever. In the day to day, it arms us against burnout – the fatigue that proceeds from disconnection from those core values. Burnout is not about hours on the clock – we all know the thrill of working eighteen hours a day on things that connect to our cores – and the fatigue of two hours on projects unconnected – it’s about failure to define and connect to what is most important to our lives.
And in an ongoing sense, being clear about these values, about our own individual priorities – and not an arsenal of values but your true core values, the one or two you will go to the mat for every single time – allows us a framework for decision making, lets us measure the many opportunities and crossroads we encounter to see whether the path ahead keeps your life on track or throws you off that center. It arms us to lead a life worth living: without such clarity, our lives are random, opportunistic, fragmented, ultimately more likely to lead to uncertainty, stress, confusion and despair.
In thinking about how to close, I was inspired by Anne Bogart in our opening night video, of "the giants on whose shoulders I stand" here today. The man most responsible for my being in the theatre was a man many of you knew – a man named Tom Haas, who variously taught acting at Yale, was artistic director at PlayMakers Repertory Company in North Carolina and moved to a final assignment leading Indiana Repertory Theatre. There’s scarcely a day I don’t think about Tom–a maddening, demented, tormented, delightful genius of a man. There are probably few figures around whom there are more pitched stories. He was, after all, the man who put Meryl Streep on probation from the acting program at Yale. Who thought Clint Eastwood was our greatest film actor. Go figure. Who was known for sneaking steaming McDonald’s fries into movies and talking back to the screen loudly, to the annoyance of those around him and the consternation of those with him. Who was overheard by an actor in a particularly arduous rehearsal lamenting to his assistant, "Why is he so bad in this?" Who snorted when he laughed and threw tables when he was angry. Who thought Liza was LEEZA. A man who lived the life of Job – who in a fifteen year period lost his wife to illness, raised two boys alone from infancy only to see the elder die of a brain tumor at the age of seventeen, watched his house burn in a freak fire, and was himself struck by a van while out walking and died several weeks later in his early fifties.
What this doesn’t capture, though, was Tom’s lightning quick mind, his deep insight into text, his profound ability to animate a script, his cheetah-like speed in staging and restaging and restaging – and woe to the actor who couldn’t keep up. His Peer Gynt refashioned for Appalachia at the turn of the century, his Peter Pan where Peter flew without wires, his Henry IV Part 2, recasting Shallow and Justice as figures from a Beckett landscape and solving the problem of the death scene bed placement – these productions blaze in my memory as fresh as the day I first saw them.
A lot of money has been spent on analyzing leaders: indeed, can leadership be taught? And the only constant found so far is that every leader could point to having had a specific mentor. And with pride I say Tom was mine.
And what did that mean? That Tom opened his heart and mind to me and shared with me what was inside. That he held me accountable to the highest standards, even as he pushed me to do work that I had no reason to believe I was capable of doing. That he gave me permission to dream and the tools to realize those dreams. And mostly, for reasons that I will never fully understand, he watched and listened to me and early in our relationship said, "There is something here worth paying attention to."
I think today of Tom – in part because he was known to few of you, because he did not have the level of recognition that would have made him an obvious choice for this first video series, for example. And his surprise to hear himself described as a giant tells me that each of us here today, in our day to day lives, has the potential to be a giant to someone else. We will encounter scores, hundreds of young people desperate to learn, desperate for someone to pay attention to them. You will see them hanging outside your office doors or outside the stage door as the case may be, sometimes sullen, sometimes voluble, but desperate for permission to be heard – to be listened to in a deep, ongoing way. You will undoubtedly see more than your share of the kids who don’t fit in – who may be awkward simply because they feel too deeply, who may be outcasts or uncertain because they look different or act different, and especially powerful to me, because they are gay or lesbian young people and the arts is the only arena where their feelings can be explored and validated without censure.
Clearly you are artists: you teach and transmit work of the highest order, and the skills you convey are essential to the next generation of artists who will follow us. But the training of artists is, in this world, a minor piece of what we are truly called to do. Every day, you are presented the opportunity, the challenge, often the burden of changing lives. Every day, you hear the inarticulate cry from young people, the Arthur Miller cry of "attention must be paid" – and you pay it. And every time you pay it – truly pay it – a life is changed. You are artists and arts supporters and arts and social activists in the highest sense, changing and molding the world we will live in.
Mentoring the next generation is the work we must all undertake. The achievements of the past will be dismantled unless we all strive consciously, passionately, stubbornly to reward the aspirations of the future. And ironically, when it comes to understanding the role of theatre in a digital age, it is those we will mentor who will be the greatest mentors to us.
We began with eleven artists on Wednesday – nine on video and Zelda and Jennifer – let us end with two – the first you met virtually, a woman I consider an inspiration, and a friend. In her recent book, A Director Prepares, Anne Bogart writes what I have come to consider the best call to action for us all:
And before I give the truly last word to Dael Orlandersmith’s extraordinary, eloquent The Gimmick, let me only remind you that we are all blessed and honored in having one another as activists and advocates and friends. My name is Ben Cameron and I am honored and humbled to stand before you as Executive Director of Theatre Communications Group. God speed you in your work.
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