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Here’s a To Do List for Us.

November 04, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World, On the Theatrosphere

By the end of this week, any way we roll, I have this feeling that the country is going to wake up to the resolution: “Party’s over. Time to fix this shit already.” There’s a good reason why everyone seems to be talking about that JFK quote these days: “The torch has been passed. Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” The time has come, and we all seem to know it.

So in order to distract me from exit polling and my browser refresh button, I’m reviewing today what still needs work close to home.

– Arts in Education is in trouble – and that is a trend that has been pretty alarmingly linked to higher rates of dropout, truancy, and lower academic achievement. (See the wonderful movie OT: Our Town for an excellent cross section of the problem, as seen from a school in Compton)

Arts coverage in the print media – and unfortunately by extension all journalism – is in trouble, and it’s our fault. You can say that ultimately our fresh perspectives are a good thing, but losing quality journalism in any sector is not a good thing. (Keep an eye on the Reader this week… Remember that little spat about sound reinforcement trends a couple weeks ago? Well Deanna Isaacs rang me up, and I’m really looking forward to the results.)

Our work needs to be better, and have greater resonance with more of the public. That pretty much always seems to be the case, and it doesn’t mean we need to be dumbing down our work. If anything, it means we need to be more clearly insightful and truthful in our work. But I think the stakes are suddenly higher now – we’re at a time where doing that self-improvement and honing work could actually make a difference for our society’s future.

– We have lots of policy makers on the blogosphere, and a much smaller ability to implement those policies. We all want to take action to do the right thing. But we must continue to educate ourselves, and test our assumptions with the best data that we can collect. Good arts policy (whether it is better opportunities for women playwrights or fair pay for arts leadership or stronger regional connection to theaters) demands the best ideas, and both the blogosphere and the big-box theaters and organizations succeed in generating better policy when that policy is informed by real trends and real data. Ignore the data, or fail to see the whole system, and our policies will simply move the problems around.

You know who taught me that? Barack Obama. As you were.

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11 Comments to “Here’s a To Do List for Us.”


  1. Great post! One of the things that occurs to me is that theatre has no authoritative spokespeople, no leadership sounding a call. All we have are a bunch of individual voices, none of whom sing louder than anyone else. The reason Obama’s election is so important is that, even though the most important political decisions are often made at the local level not the national, the President points a direction. It isn’t that the direction they point isn’t balanced by others — that’s what the checks-and-balance form of government does — but it is their voice that sets the agenda. Who sets theatre’s agenda? And who provides the checks and balances? Who do we look to when we need someone to sound a call? The closest we have is the head of TCG, and I am sorry to say that TCG is not taking a leadership role, but rather sees itself as one of the cheerleaders. We need our own Barack Obama. How do we get one?

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  2. nick keenan says:

    great question Scott. And can I say that it’s good to hear from you? I don’t think we ever will have – or should have – a theater president or theater czar. I think one of the strengths of theatrical work is that it serves as a mouthpiece for people – especially otherwise disenfranchised people.

    I think we were on to something when we talked as a unified theatrosphere about the value of theater. Whether individual writers feltthat conversation was worthwhile is up for debate, but man did we speak together to reach folks outside of our little world. What I’ve learned from the following attempts at synchronization is that, frankly it’s difficult to do on a scale as small and multifaceted as we have.

    For me, the answer is what you’ve done in regards to regionalization of theater – develop a policy, refine it, test it with data and experience, enlist and retain support, and most important in the attention-deficited environment of blogs: remember it over the long term.

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  3. Thank you, Nick. What the President has that we lack is a megaphone, a bully pulpit. Artists have never learned the lesson of the Tower of Babel — that a bunch of voices speaking without common language is chaos. A President is not a dictator, someone who dominates the conversation and blots out all other voices. But he does set a tone and points a general direction, and without that we lack forward motion. Perhaps it is not a President of the entire theatrical universe, but several Presidents (a theatrical House of Representatives or senate?) who speak for certain constituents: Broadway, dinner theatres, community-based theatres, small independent theatres, and so forth. The cacophony that passes for conversation in the art form is deafening and unfocused.

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  4. Get rid of the word “bully” and I’ll listen. And the word “he”.

    I think that theatre doesn’t need a president or one person leading it. It needs action. It needs hope.

    It needs people to get off the damn computer once in a while and actually go and create something.

    I don’t see Barack Obama checking his blog list everyday and commenting on everybody’s ideas.

    RZ

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  5. Whomever the Obama of Theatre would be would have to espouse some of the following IMO

    I think that we need to focus more on the things that unite us, and less on the things that divide us as theatre makers. We need to create a model of believe where theater artists arent telling other theater artists what is valuable to theatre, but where our audiences are actually echoing to each other the value of theatre. We need to find ways of thinking and producing that don’t promote the notion that we must be in competition with TV, movies, and youtube.

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  6. Can we parse Scott’s idea down from the national level to the community level? How often do theater leaders in one community talk to each other? I mean really talk and help each other. To the degree that the leasers become a united artistic front within that community. I think this address Rebecca’s idea of person to person interaction. Are the theater leaders to busy to come together and create a vision of theatrical arts for the community?

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  7. Dennis, sidebar: I loved your last blog post on Kushner’s (and Scott’s) ideas to abolish the undergraduate art major. If anything, my personal philosophy for a successful artist follows that trajectory: More art practice and exposure in Elementary, Middle, and High Schools, and then a stronger focus on arts components of higher education, or at most a double-major system. But yes… we should be graduating a lot of folks who know Theater and Web Design. Or Film and Mortgage Brokerage. Or Whatever.

    And yes… I think some of us on this blogosphere have this instinct to scale our ideas out to the national scale to test them, and I like your instinct to parse it down to action that an individual – dare I say a community organizer? – can take. But I think we need, as an online community of thinkers, to head in both directions and get out of this quagmiry pseudo-theory-without-real-data middle ground that we tend towards.

    The basic methodology for any social action is: engage people who need help and who can help, and manage your resources so that you don’t burn out. That works on the local scale, and the national scale. Let’s not ever forget that.

    In Chicago, we have a kind of mini-TCG in the form of the League of Chicago Theaters. They’ve been an organization with this mission of leadership and coordination for many years, but with the added benefit that we as individuals could actually approach them and talk with them. In recent years the League was assailed with many funding problems. Leadership there has just changed around and many of their initiatives are gaining traction, which means that a greater percentage of theaters are buying in and becoming active participants in that local discussion.

    You can follow their work and projects at http://chicagoplays.com

    So how do we get the people who choose large-scale initiatives to pick the right ones? Some pretty challenging steps there.

    1. Find out who is in a position to make change happen.

    2. Talk to them – identify their resources, identify their needs, identify the needs of the local or national community. We’re doing a lot of that last part already on the blogosphere, but we’re only talking to each other right now, not the people who are in a position to administrate arts policy.

    3. The knowledge we gain in step 2 helps us better able to coordinate on the local level – Some of us may choose to use the leverage of existing administrative structures to achieve change and better coordination, and some of us may decide that existing administrative structures are unable to execute change, and they need to be dismantled or simply replaced with something better.

    I have been working closely with the League ever since I started this blog (indeed, several of the staffers there are regular readers of mine), and given their very limited resources, I honestly like the direction they’re heading in terms of arts marketing – especially in the way that they have locally administered programs like TCG’s Free Night of Theater.

    But in terms of social change and long-term growth of the arts, arts marketing is a very inefficient strategy . LIke Obama, I look to the amazing model of The Harlem Children’s Zone as a holistic approach to improving education to generate a populace that is more receptive and participatory in the arts – it’s an amazing program, but it basically operates from the principle: social change and educational improvement is efficiently achieved when you start younger and encourage the participation of the entire community.

    I do wish that the League had the resources to organize a program like Obama is proposing – a City-Year like Arts Corp that matches artistic talent with local schools that need help and advice with arts education programs. In my personal opinion, that’s the first bite of the bagel that we need to rip off and chew for a while, since it’s a VERY direct way to engage with any local community.

    My method has been thus: walk in to your local high school or middle school, talk with the beleaguered theater instructor, and find out what they need in terms of arts support. Voice work? Equipment? Equipment repair? A viewpoints class? They may not know. But simply making contact with them will forge a connection between your theater work and children who could be changed by it. It will give the teachers and school administrators more knowledge and better ways of implementing an arts program, and it often gets you a small stipend which can make the difference when you’re a struggling artist. And then you meet their parents, and their parents see your shows since you’re right next door, and your work gets better and more immediate because it is informed by your new awareness of the problems that face your community, and you grow your audience….

    This is just an example of how initiatives can create a domino effect of change if you let them. It can also absolutely backfire, so it’s important to approach initiatives with a sense of preparedness and excitement.

    Choose the right one, and let’s not spread ourselves so thin.

    And I think that Scott has served as a good model (not to put him on the spot) of how you can create initiatives that domino off and spawn a whole bunch of other small accrued positive changes in people who believe in you. He’s also served as a good model that you can’t centralize coordination in certain circles – I think the beauty of Obama’s method of leadership is that it sort of works as an idea pill. If you can swallow the message “This is your victory. We as a people will get there. Our union can be perfected,” that is a core inspiration that will be parsed differently and spawn very specific actions in individuals across the nation. Are there holes in those messages? Sure. That’s the point. That’s what I was hoping for the age-old “Value of Theater” conversation that got the theatrosphere buzzing and talking together and ultimately, added a few new voices to the conversation.

    But we have sharp critical instincts in the theatrosphere, so we get and generate a lot of backlash (as can be inferred from RZ’s and Devilvet’s comments). So I don’t know that arts leadership can emerge from the theatrosphere itself. That may be what has been burning out Scott before the election renewed all of our hope, because I suspect he’s ready to connect with or become that leadership, but it’s not happening, even though his core theories are some of the most solid examples of legitimate policy that have been generated by this community of thinkers. I think that’s a problem with the medium of blogging: it may be a good way of opening up problems and looking at them, and it may be a good way to disseminate effective policy once it is created.

    But coordination and reconciliation, and thus leadership, ultimately happens face-to-face. It’s why people fly to Washington or pound on their neighbors’ door instead of e-mailing the president when they want change to actually happen.

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  8. See that? “Relationships built on Self Interest.” Change comes by shifting self-interests.

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  9. Another case in point: The League of Chicago Theaters has some synchronicity on this issue.

    Be loud, we are vitally important to the cultural health of this nation. Now is the time, don’t let up, I say again, BE LOUD. Make sure your representatives know the impact your organization has on your neighborhoods, your audiences, everyone you serve. Have meetings with them, invite them in, pester them until they pay attention, it is their job to pay attention.

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  10. Tom Arvetis says:

    I thought I’d throw out Tom Tresser’s name here. He’s a local activist and artist who has spent a great deal of energy in the last five or so years (probably longer) championing a “creative movement.” For me, it boiled down to a couple of key points: 1. acknowledging a creative class (see Richard Florida’s book “The Rise of the Creative Class”) and recognizing its political power; 2. championing creativity as a core value in our society; and 3. getting creative people (read: artists) to run for public office.

    The last one may feel like a stretch but I think there’s value in exploring the idea. Especially on a local level. This idea is, at it’s core, a grassroots idea and permeates quite a few areas of concern within the theatre community, at the very least.

    Anyway, his website is: http://www.tresser.com. You’ll find a blog and his manifesto. Perhaps more fodder for discussion.

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  11. Nick, thanks for reading the post. I recently became aware of League of Chicago Theaters from a friend that moved to New York (side note she worked with Greasy Joan). I recently went to a conference in San Francisco that was sponsored by Theater Bay Area, which is the same type of organization. I thought it was a good system that created a broader theater community and was also able to work with national organizations like TCG.

    I like your ideas of what small things one can do as an individual to help youth connect to theater. I know many teachers who would love the help of professionals in after school programs. There are legal hoops to jump through, but if one is willing there is great opportunities there.

    The idea of new leadership has been sitting with me for awhile as the conference in San Francisco brought together the theater leaders of the next generation. I have also wrestled with the ideas of leaders growing out of a decentralization model that Scott is proposing. I think that is why groups like Theater Bay Area and League of Chicago Theaters intrigue me because the leaders are tied to the community and the needs within that construct. I agree that there will need to be a national voice/representation. What intrigues me about the theatrosphere is that most of the people are all in different locations and in a way become the lead blogger for that location. So maybe we have a two folded leadership question: who will rise in leadership on the local AND national level?

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