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12 Holiday Wishes for the Theatre

Sunday, December 20, 2009 Leave a Comment

Here are my 12 wishes for theatre in the new year:

1. An Online Audience/Artist Community: This is #1 because it makes almost every aspect of #2-12 more possible.Whether it is the Audience Engagement Platform or something out of Project Audience, the goal is to connect audience, artist and institution in a robust arts-centric online platform that allows a diverse, vibrant field to find allies, collaborate on mutual opportunities and challenges, share best practices, develop increased audience ownership through a more transparent process, and leverage this revitalized online community to achieve real world goals.

2. A Truly National (Local) Theatre: The invaluable work of Scott Walters at CRADLE (the Center for Rural Arts Development and Leadership Education) seeks to create a truly national theatre that serves not just not the coasts and population centers, but exists as a right of every American community. Until every citizen has access to a theatre that empowers it's local community, we will continue to experience political resistance to the arts as an essential part of our democracy. His work with CRADLE emphasizes geographic diversity, local stories, and the empowerment of community members to engage directly with their own creativity, and theatres like Cornerstone, Appalshop, Double Edge, and Mo'olelo serve as examples. I think that #1 could greatly increase the efficacy of #2 by connecting underserved communities directly with artists in oversaturated areas.

3. New Models of Sustainability: The model of corporate hierarchy that currently dominates the internal structure our major theatres, and the framing of theatre as a charity equivalent to feeding the hungry, have both come under increasing scrutiny. The new models of sustainability proposed by Stolen Chair's CST, Chris Ashworth's "Process is the Product", and New Leaf's Partnership Model re-imagine the audience/artist funding relationship as more sustained and reciprocal; and the Ensemble model of companies like Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble give example of a more flexible, horizontal, and holistic internal structure. For companies to thrive in wish #2, they are going to need to consider the models of #3.

4. El Sistema for American Theatre: The Venezuelan economist, activist, and musician Jose Antonio Abreu founded El Sistema as a model for arts education in 1975, and it has since grown into an internationally recognized engine for social change. Focused on providing a rigorous classical music education for students of poor socioeconomic background, El Sistema has shattered the perceived elitism of classical music by transforming the lives of its participants, improving attendance rates, dropout rates, crime rates and launching the careers of artists like Gustavo Dudamel. While an American theatrical version of this would (and should) look different, I believe theatre can have an equally transformative effect on education and community; and without a sustained nationwide commitment to arts education, Wish #2 may never have the support it needs to flourish.

5. Increased Diversity: The debate inspired by Arena Stage's Defining Diversity conference has flourished online, and projects like 50/50 in 2020 have set clear, achievable goals for more a more equitable, inclusive field; but this is an old discussion, and diversity sometimes feels like theatre's favorite stationary bike; we love working up a sweat, but we're not going anywhere. My hope for the new year is to see a clearly defined persuasive argument for why diversity in theatre matters; a model for which kinds of diversity we need to prioritize; a comprehensive demographic study of where we are now; a clear and tangible goal of where we'd like to be; and an inclusive strategy to cross that distance. This Wish is intimately linked to Wishes #1, #2, and #4; in fact, I'm not sure lasting diversity can be achieved without a truly national (local) theatre, empowered arts education, and the kind of online community that could provide real time metrics of progress and foster self-selected cultural connection.

6. Indie Theatre Repertory: While this Wish is local, I'm sure other communities experience the difficult transition from one union contract to the other, and the resulting lack of traction and growth opportunities for smaller companies. This wish is detailed here and here, and I'm hoping to make some progress with it in the new year.

7. Idea Bank: In talking with people about Wish #6, I found out that a similar idea had been proposed years ago, and this unknown recycling of ideas continues because the field has no central warehouse. It seemed for a moment this might happen over here, and perhaps Google Wave (or Wish #1) will make this achievable; but however it happens, a platform for storing, improving, acting and following up on the field's ideas and conversations is essential.

8. Assessing Cultural Impact: Wish #8 belongs to point 3 of a 5 point proposal made by Arlene Goldbard at the NET Summit in June:

How would our cities be different today if policy-makers had brought imaginative empathy to the cultural lives of the neighborhoods emptied out to make way for new sports stadiums, performing arts complexes, freeways and downtown ghost towns? We would emulate the law that requires us to assess possible environmental impacts of regulations, interventions and projects, and begin to assess cultural impacts in hope of ensuring that decision-makers consider the well-being of communities and their cultural fabric before approving plans.
Here here.

9. Bridging the Amateur-Professional Divide: Linked to #2 and #4, I talked about this unnecessary divide here, and the gap in adult arts education funding here. Simply put, if no one is playing baseball in their own backyard, they're a whole lot less likely to watch it in yours. Empowering a community to a lifelong connection to their own creativity is essential, and the divide between amateur and professional is increasingly damaging to the health of the field.

10. Embracing More Critical Voices: The Indie Theatre field owes a great debt to nytheatre.com, offoffonline, the Clyde Fitch Report, the folks at Show Showdown and all the newly flourishing critical voices online. For little to no money, these critics soldier into productions that otherwise might find no coverage, and a few do so with more clarity of thought and generosity of purpose than their mainstream brethren. And yet, we still look to the mainstream press as the ultimate gatekeepers of quality, even as we increasingly don't connect with their criticism. We need to engage with all reviewers, but especially those mentioned above, as equal partners in the process of improving the field. That means actually engaging with reviews rather than using them for pull quotes, and reading and responding to their work even when it isn't about us. We can't complain about the outsize power of a few reviewers without also empowering the many.

11. Improving Quality: This is especially true now, when the latest NEA report shows participation in the arts dropping, and we must confront that unseemly elephant called Quality. Just because it is very difficult to define quality doesn't mean it's entirely subjective. I talked about the difference between quality and value here, and we've tried to host a conversation here about what makes theatre work through our Exploding Moments series. Internally, we've added aesthetic feedback to our production post mortem, and I think we need to go much further with that process. All the noble goals espoused above and on this blog count for nothing if a play is boring.

12. Partnering with Science: Readers may have noticed a more scientific bent to this blog of late. This comes from my increasing conviction that science and the arts are natural allies. The increasing pace of breakthroughs in neuroscience, genetics, and physics are revealing how theatre functions in the mind, even as they are rewriting the meaning of what it means to be human. On a more short-term practical level, augmented reality pulls the connectivity of the internet into our local world in ways that may offer profound opportunities for theatre.

So, what do you think? What are your wishes for the theatre in 2010?

5 comments »

  • Matt A said:  

    May I be so bold as to suggest a black-on-white color scheme for the text of your posts?

    I love reading them...but am I the only one finding it difficult to read?

  • August Schulenburg said:  

    Good question - does anyone else find the current color scheme difficult to read? New year, new colors?

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    What Dorla likes...Dorla gets.