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Rewriting Ourselves

August 24, 2009 By: Nick Keenan Category: Chicago Theater, Collaboration, Community Building, In a Perfect World, On the Theatrosphere, Teachable Moments

One of the things that became clear at our New Leaf Brunch Launch this week was that, while our friends and audience clearly love the approach of a season question (yay, score!), it wasn’t yet clear to them exactly how New Leaf chooses each question, each year.

The answer: For us, the season question is always the question of everything. Now.

Last year was a year of new beginnings for us. “How do we build a future from a present we didn’t expect?” New Leaf was finding itself switching gears into a new kind of work, a new kind of intensity. In our personal lives, our company members were finding that the allure of career – even a part-time, low-income career, but One That Was Calling To Us – was becoming increasingly more attractive with age, somehow more necessary than a life of stability in service to ideas that we didn’t quite believe in.

So we left those jobs, and that safety net. We leapt into the freelance sector. We connected with our creative calling, and found ways of making that work necessary, and lucrative. We shopped around for non-group health insurance, and although it hurt, we paid for it, because it meant freedom and a new kind of security.

In our artistic work, we explored death, and we confronted ourselves with the inevitability of our own deaths. We explored the cost of a life left unlived, and we interrogated ourselves and identified the aspects of our unlived lives that would become regrets given the chance. We discovered the hard-won value of a path chosen instead of defaulted into, and we forced ourselves to choose our own path, and we forced ourselves to blaze that trail into a wilderness that was… Calling to Us.

And so here we are. A tribe, together, in some pretty rough and unexplored terrain. We’re a theater company that is small with a big reach. We’re creative workers with less regular (and less soul-sucking) employment who have the tools to build a lifestyle, but we need to get to work sowing opportunities and reaping small bits of income, or we will starve. It is clear: our question is changing.

So from this atmosphere forms a new question, with new work that we must do to crack open that nut and really make us look and examine our lives beyond our work. A new question that constantly pushes us to renew.

For me, I’m starting to see the patterns in how we communicate, and the patterns that form into psychic blocks. I haven’t been a blogger for very long, but I have been involved in the public discourse of theater arts for a few moons, and I’m seeing a new round of exciting energy that reminds me of a similar round of exciting energy. This new round comes primarily from this galvanizing and energizing series of posts from the New Colony, calling for a long-term manifesto and summit to organize and legitimize storefront theater in Chicago to take the helm as a trend-setting theater community. This is not the first time a flare has been fired calling for Chicago to take the helm as a world leader in creating new, exciting theatrical work. But because it comes in a time where many are chanting that call to action together – we have begun to tell that same story together with and through our lives – it feels like there is real momentum, that we are approaching a tipping point.

A story is never a complete truth, but it is always a compelling truth. A story ignores much mundane detail in the name of focusing our attention on what matters, on what needs work, on what needs focus. The story says “our work and our leadership is not as diverse as we are,” “our work is not risky enough, not bold enough,” “our work does not feature enough new voices, and so old voices retain too much influence.” A story is idealism, codified and written, with the beginnings of practical applications of that idealism – bold new ways of being – wrapped up in the myth and the fairy tale.

I empathized with this story of the New Colony’s – an entire framework for viewing the situation of Chicago storefronts – and, predictably, I was reminded of my own experiments at forming initiatives and coalitions. This is when I was an even younger arts advocate and as someone entirely new to engaging with public discourse. I recently looked through some old notes I had created for an ad hoc organization I was trying to put together – the Storefront Theater Alliance of Chicago, or STAC, I think we were calling it. I remember the meeting I had with several trusted folks in other small companies to plan out and carve a mission for this alternative organization that would represent the specific needs of independent theater – advocacy I didn’t feel happening and so I didn’t believe existed. I remember the moment when the plan all fell apart… we decided on our mission, a mission we could all get behind. And we looked up, just to check, the mission of the League of Chicago Theaters, and I saw:

Our mission and the League’s mission were the same thing. Nearly word for word. We were working towards the same goal. We were asking the same question from two very different angles.

That was, I think, a week before I first emailed Ben Thiem at the League and really started engaging him in conversation. Learning what he was working on, and giving him (public) feedback about the programs they had put on that had made a big impact on me. (Larry Keeley created this amazing manifesto for Chicago Theater to effectively simplify, unify and modernize our marketing and unite the community behind a few key initiatives that would break open the watermelon of new audience development, so to speak. I still keep that powerpoint hosted here. Read it. It’s a good story.)

That conversation led me to think deeper about the needs and situations of theaters beyond my own, and gather data, and see how my energies could be used to further other people’s stated goals – goals I believed in. Instead of writing a new story from scratch, I’d become an editor, a shaper of other stories, helping other advocates test messages and unite the community behind common purpose.

My question was changing, can you see?

I did more research, I talked with friends who had done even more research. Eventually, through Dan Granata, I read the stories of the beginnings of the League way back in the first revolutionary storefront movement in the 70s. I began to see that my efforts were part of a cycle of group behavior, and realized that if we didn’t understand the story of people like Lois Weisberg we were never getting anywhere… Storefront arts organizations have this way of proliferating and periodically you would have three or four ask the question of why storefronts didn’t cooperate to leverage their energies for cultural change. You had a lot of people get discouraged very quickly in the face of financial and political and personal limitations. I got a little obsessed with counting things in the hopes that the full picture would yield clarity, because I could see – from my initial perspective, I was not seeing the entire picture. But progress starting happening, slowly. Deb Clapp was named as the new head of the League, and on this one day Deb sat down with many of the same folks that had been involved with STAC – plus the Goodman and some other larger theaters – and bam, we planned Chicago’s World Theatre Day celebrations in a couple hours. It was easy to unite and cooperate, because it was for the collective benefit of all.

I felt that advocacy, suddenly, and felt myself becoming a stronger advocate. And I’m still not seeing the entire picture.

Here’s the thing – I believe in what the New Colony is asking, and I think – still – that they are presenting questions that we must all choose to act on. (So do it, seriously. Let’s stop putting it off in the name of our own immediate needs, get coffee together and hash this shit out, a common goal and a common purpose, because the world is waiting for change to be articulated and germinated.) Let’s also try to bring everyone to the table so we see how big this question really needs to be. Let’s learn the old questions so that we can adapt them into new questions. I believe in the transformative power of story, because I’ve seen its effect on my life, on our lives, on our city, on our country. The stories we tell rewrite what we become, somehow.

And so this year, I still believe in the old question – I still believe we must build a future and that our present is rarely one we expect – but I believe it with more experience and more choices under my belt. Some of those choices and some of that experience may be untrustworthy – I’m only human and so my failure to revolt doesn’t necessarily mean that revolution isn’t necessary.

But even the faultiness of stories yields amazing fruit. I still believe, for instance in the fanciful and perhaps hubristic story that I daydreamed about at UMass with my upper- and lower-classmen friends – that we would get to be part of an American cultural renaissance, an explosion/confluence of new science that illuminates art and art that illuminates science. Oddly enough, I believe that the act of telling myself that story again and again has somehow manifested itself in my life and my community. And the story of renaissance – that particular series of intellectual and creative reactions – has this ability to align us towards the possibility of radical creative thought (as opposed to radical destruction). It starts us running in the same direction, and starts us building and creating.

And so I ask the question: What are the stories I’m telling myself? Are they lies, or are they truths that I don’t understand yet? And how are those stories changing me, even as I fail to understand them? Do I want them to change me?

Do I need to tell myself new stories in order to become the person I want to be, or to create the community and world I would like to live in?

Choosing stories to change the world is positively mundane in the realm of theater… every artistic director does it, in their own way, every year. But even mundane things can explain the universe we live in – if we examine them closely enough.

I learned that from Arcadia by Tom Stoppard. It’s a good story. You should read it.

This post is cross-posted on the New Leaf Theatre Blog. The coffee ingested to produce it was provided by the incomparable Margo Gray. Thanks, Margo!

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