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Let Me Down Easy

Wednesday, December 30, 2009 4 comments

Two nights ago I saw Anna Deveare Smith's play about health care, Let Me Down Easy. I was deeply moved by the play, and haven't stopped thinking about it, as it touched on many of the ideas we've been discussing on this blog.

First, on Presence: It absolutely mattered that this was a play and not a movie. Throughout the play, Anna's characters reacted to their unseen interviewer; and at other times, the characters solicited input directly from the audience; so that subtly over the course of the play, we became the interviewer, directly participating in the action. The set design captured this brilliantly through column-like mirrors that created a reflecting ampitheatre.

Second, on Diversity: In thinking of how the audience matters, this particular night's audience was notably diverse in both race and age. And while it's stupid to assume that Audience Member X vocally responded to a particular moment simply because of their age or race, very different responses were happening all around me; and that made me notice things in the play I might have missed. Which is to say that a truly diverse audience is one of truly diverse perceptions; and that having multiple perceptions strengthens the quantum Darwinism of live theatre. I hope to come back to this as a way of exploring diversity as a uniquely theatrical need, rather than simply a general obligation.

Third, on Imaginative Empathy: One aspect of Imaginative Empathy that is particularly important to me is its power to shock us with the wonder of a single life, and makes us keenly feel the size of its loss. Anna accomplishes more than that - in the singular insight of the New Yorker review:

Smith is doing more than opening up a much needed discussion about the dying and those who minister to them. The purpose of the enterprise, we realize, is for the playwright herself to learn how to die.
And because we have been subtly led to become the interviewer, we are also learning how to die. (And who wrote those beautiful words, New Yorker? The review is unsigned!) I found myself turning over each word of the end of the play like a rough tool in my hand, as if somehow I could use them to build an edifice of comfort or courage against my end.

Fourth, on theatre as an engine of democracy: The play's great political insight is that health care is not only about public options and triggers; it is also about how we deal (or don't) with suffering and death in our culture. At the heart of the play are two interview excerpts from physician Kiersta Kurtz-Burke and Dean of Stanford's School of Medicine, Phil Puzzo. The first makes clear the cost of treating health care as a commodity; the second exposes one of the reasons our culture chooses to treat it as a commodity - an unwillingness to consider death as the inevitable end of life. Whatever your feelings on the intricacies of the health care bill, facing the human costs of health care failure in our country, and acknowledging the emotional roots of that failure, is one of the unique gifts of this play, and something theatre is uniquely able to do.

It was an inspiring evening, and even though I agree with Alexis Soloski's smart take on the play's failings, what matters about this production overwhelms the flaws. Let Me Down Easy reminds us that while the answer to life's question is death, the answer to death's question is live.

And as I am a juxtaposition junkie, I leave you with this YouTube pitch from the Manhattan Beach Project, a coalition of scientists hoping to end aging by 2029...which may or may not have an impact on the health care debate. Read the full story

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12 Holiday Wishes for the Theatre

Sunday, December 20, 2009 5 comments

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? Read the full story

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Quantum Darwinism

Thursday, December 17, 2009 4 comments

In this blog post we're going to fly from quantum mechanics to Darwin to theatre as quickly as possible, using only links and the single engine plane of my mind, so hold on. Ready?

One of essential differences between classical and quantum physics is probability. At the incredibly small Planck level, particles are neither here nor there, but a probability wave of both, a superposition of states. When observed, this wavefunction collapses into the familiar one location/state of classical physics (perhaps you've heard of our hapless feline friend, Schrodinger's cat). But the probability wave is real, and the physics that surround it incredibly accurate and exceedingly strange, giving rise to quantum entanglement and theories of parallel worlds.

The process of wavefunction collapse, and the obscuring of the bizarre quantum world, happens through a process called decoherence, which I talked about in theatre terms here. The actual process of decoherence remains uncertain. But in this process lies the answer of how our observable classical here-not-there cause-and-effect lovely world emerges from the quantum weirdness.

Physicist Wojciech Zurek came up with a theory based in an unlikely source: Darwin's theory of evolution. The probability wave of the quantum world insists that a particle is both here and there until it is observed; Zurek believes that observation is a kind of selection, whereby the particles that interact with the probability wave select the location/state that is most useful to them, aka, the fittest; and then deliver the information of that state into the world; and though other particles may interact with the wave in a different location, they are overwhelmed by the process of selection that says this particle is most fit here, not there.

Two beautiful things about this idea: the first is that the probabilistic nature of the quantum world does not collapse, as if the superposition of states was some foreign magical universe; but rather we only see the fittest version, based on a process of selection below the Planck level. The second is that if correct, the framework that underpins all of life's astonishing diversity is theoretically connected to the way the universe moves from possibility into being.

Pretty enough, but what on earth does this have to do with theatre?

Recent posts have wrestled with my fear that Presence, the essential difference of theatre to other narrative communal arts, isn't an essential enough difference to make up for its shortcomings. But here, with quantum Darwinism as a model, we have a possible conceptual framework for why the live audience/actor experience matters.

In theatre, the actor is the probability wave, and the audience is the force that pressures each evolving moment into the fittest choice. No matter what a rehearsal process has been, a play will inevitably move towards what an audience wants; as many a despairing director returning to a long run discovers. An actor makes a choice, and if enough audience members connect viscerally with that choice, a current runs from house to stage and changes the way that actor plays; they hold longer for a laugh, or go further with a big choice, emboldened by that current of yes.

In this feedback loop, an audience is shaping the performance in a way that is fundamentally Darwinian; choices that fall flat, arcs that don't work, will quickly find extinction as the play evolves under the selective pressures of the audience. In The Empty Space, Peter Brook bemoans a production that played with beautiful detail in one country, only to becomes coarse and simplistic in another; but really, the production was doing exactly what a play should do - evolve to meet the present moment.

When we say a great actor has Presence, what do we mean? What do we mean when we say In The Moment?

I think we mean that a great actor's performance is like that probability wave of quantum mechanics: it is both here and there, a superposition of possible states; until, acted upon by the pressures of the audience's perception, that possibility crystalizes into a choice; and if that actor is very good, we keenly feel the the current of that feedback running through each moment we make together.

So in this way, theatre is more than the observation of a human moment; it is the practice of shaping it. In this framework, the audience is participatory in more than just passive terms; they are the essential pressure which gives the play life.

And in this way, theatre is linked not only to the evolution of life; but to each present moment crystalizing out of quantum possibility into the only world we know.

A play is possibility, then the pressure of perception making the present, then the past. Read the full story

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More On Presence

Tuesday, December 15, 2009 8 comments

Exhibit A: Your partner walks into your bedroom to find you watching porn on your computer. Your partner's reaction may be pissed off or turned on, or merely indifferent.

Exhibit B: Your partner walks into your bedroom to find you watching several people having sex on your bed. In this scenario, indifference seems less likely of an option.

Why? Presence.

And as silly as those exhibits are, understanding why that difference is important is essential to articulating why theatre is important. Is theatre important for what it is, or what it does? What seems like a semantic question is a little slipperier than that.

Two weekends ago at the Defining Diversity conference in DC, Taylor Mac talked about the nostalgia people have for their narratives, how difficult it is to let certain beloved narratives go. He was referring specifically to traditional narratives of marriage, but for me the question expanded to theatre itself.

Is theatre essential? Or is it just a beloved narrative that we're all hanging onto as (according to the most recent NEA study) our audiences dwindle and move on? Are arts practitioners, as Fractured Atlas Adam Huettler puts it, in the typewriter business? Typewriters now have nostalgic value for what they are, but have little value for what they do.

So if theatre is important for what it does, it may eventually be completely replaced by film, video games, or holograms; because if the good that theatre does can be mass distributed for less cost and greater good, theatre is a vehicle of nostalgia, and we are the last followers of Zeus.

But if theatre is important for what it is, that difference lives in Presence. And I think the difference between Exhibit A and B is that, while we're just watching in both, we are also participating in Exhibit B; because we're not witnessing an artifact indifferent to our existence, but participating in a shared moment, unique in time. Our watching matters.

Does it matter enough? Does that difference between A and B justify holding onto a medium manifestly less efficient than the media of mass distribution? Most of the traditional arguments for theatre completely ignore what it is in favor of what it does (education, local business enhancement, community building) ignoring that there may be many more cost effective ways for a community to accomplish those tasks. And when we do discuss Presence as essential, it usually is presented as an unquestionable virtue. Well, it is to us. We so love our nostalgic narrative of sacred theatre.

But that narrative is increasingly foreign to a culture where story is as free as air, and virtual connection only a click away. When our culture cares about Presence, it is usually celebrity Presence, which owes more to the power of other media than to theatre. The case for theatre as an enduring human activity can take many forms, but it must have this question of why Presence matters at the root.

Or we'll be left with Exhibit A, and go on clapping uncertainly at the end of movies. Read the full story

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Flux Sunday, December 13th

Monday, December 14, 2009 3 comments

(What is Flux Sunday?)

Playwrights: Throwing Gumballs (Rob Ackerman), Red Horses (Johnna Adams), Going Out Dancing (Katherine Burger), McTeague (James Comtois), Moving Statues (Corey Ann Haydu), Untitled Russian Project (David Ian Lee), Dark Matter (August Schulenburg), The Sleeping World (Crystal Skillman)

Directors: Angela Astle, Rob Ackerman, Katherine Burger, Crystal Skillman

Actors: Ryn Andes, Matthew Archambault, Carissa Cordes, David Crommett, Nancy Franklin, Candice Holdorf, Ingrid Nordstrom, Gretchen Poulos, Jane Taylor, Isaiah Tanenbaum, Richard Watson, Cotton Wright

Sometimes, I plan things out just right...and then there was this Sunday. We went way over time, though for good reason - we had a ton of great material, and actors and directors who wanted to dig deeper.

Highlights included:

-Isaiah Tanenbaum playing Luke Wilson, a Bengali physicist, an elderly shut-in, a miser, and a friendly barkeep all in one day
-Carissa Cordes as a fierce Bright Wing in Johnna's prequel (!) to Angel Eaters
-Ryan Andes' lovably simple McTeague facing down Richard Watson's drunkenly embittered Marcus (the fight scene hilariously directed by Rob Ackerman)
-Katherine's direction of David Ian Lee and Jane Taylor in her Going Out Dancing - I'd previously seen this play at a much faster clip, which put the epiphany in the hands of the audience: here, the more deliberate pace gave Jane's Anna the full opportunity to realize what was happening, and to a degree, accept it
-Working with Cotton on Crystal's The Sleeping World, where complex emotionally rich moments must move quickly - a surprisingly challenging script for a seemingly naturalistic play
-Matt Archambault and Candice Holdorf got to let their hair down a little in Corey's Moving Statues, and the result were two relaxed, highly present, and engaging performances

Artists who attended, what were your highs and lows? Read the full story

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Free Artists Of Themselves

Rereading Harold Bloom's book on Shakespeare, The Invention of the Human, I was struck anew by this passage on page 56 regarding the uniqueness of his characters, excerpted here:

"Instead of fitting the role to the play, the post-Marlovian Shakespeare creates personalities who never could be accommodated by their roles: excess marks them not as hyperboles or Marlovian overreachers, but as overflowing spirits, more meaningful than the sum of their actions...characters who are 'free artists of themselves' (Hegel on Shakespeare's personage's), and who can give the impression that they are at work attempting to make their own plays...they give the sense that all plot is arbitrary, whereas personality, however daemonic, is transcendent, and is betrayed primarily by what's within...And they are never reduced to their fates; they are more, much more, than what happens to them"
Bloom goes on to list some of the characters he believes are "free artists of themselves"- Hamlet, Iago, Edmund, Lear, Rosalind, Edgar, Falstaff, Macbeth, Cleopatra - and will spend much of the book unpacking this central idea. And though I don't always agree with his particulars, I agree wholeheartedly that some of Shakespeare's characters have a vitality that seems to overwhelm their plays.

What recent characters have that vitality, that overabundance of life, that makes them "free artists of themselves"? Please post your suggestions in the comments, and read on for three suggestions of my own.

I think Meredith in Viral is my most recent example. We only receive hints of her past, but her actions in the present flood our imaginations with the things she might have done. Meredith gives you the feeling you are watching only the final play in a sequence of the many plays of her life. Alternatively amused and repulsed by this latest play she finds herself in, there is an awareness and vitality (ironic for a suicide) that makes her different from the other characters, who while compelling, seem to belong only to one play.

Everett from Rattlers is another: almost from the beginning of his long scene with Ted, he knows he is talking with the likely murderer of his wife; and yet he plays with this man for a long time before revealing what he knows. He is possessed by a relentless self-awareness - he sees through everything, especially himself - and refuses to properly participate in the revenge drama he finds himself in. Instead, like a twisted mirror of Rosalind courting Orlando, Everett disguises what he is, finding a surprising intimacy with his enemy.

Marco in Pretty Theft also seems like he's just left a different play, and will move onto the next after this one. Unlike Joe and Allegra, beautiful creations who belong completely to their play, Marco's negative vitality transcends it; his extreme powers of perception pierce everything but the void in himself.

Allegra meeting Ted seems bizarre; but somehow I can clearly imagine a scene where Meredith, Marco and Everett meet in some dive bar in Texas (and woe to the bartender!) What other recent characters have that kind of play-transcending vitality? Post 'em in the comments!

The reason I'm wondering is I think there's a link between this kind of vitality, and the adaptability of theatre, mentioned in this post:
"The greatest plays are also the most adaptable; there is something in them that allows for so much multiplicity of meaning that they are not bound to their cultural time and place. Each group of audience and artists that plays a play shift the meaning to fit their our own unique needs of the moment, while at the same time engaging with the legacy of past productions."
I think that's especially for true for plays with characters like Rosalind and Everett, Iago and Marco, Meredith and Hamlet. Their sheer size means there will always be room for a new interpretation; we will never quite be done with them, or as Bloom might put it, they will never quite be done with us. Read the full story

Out and About, Early December

Wednesday, December 9, 2009 0 comments

When your play closes
the job transposes
to seeing other folks showses
(everyone knows this)
So, here we goeses!*

-Ken Glickfeld's in Israel Horovitz's Scrooge and Marley at Barefoot Theatre Company.

-Conni's Avant Garde Restaurant returns to the Bushwick Starr December 18th, 19th and 20th (and have you read her must-read post about restaurants and theatre?)

-Sound Designer Asa Wember has a new project, 13P's production of Julia Jarcho's American Treasure, closing this weekend so get on it!

-The Production Company got a huge thumbs up from trusted theatre-goer Sean Williams for their production of Meg's New Friend by Blair Singer, now through December 20th.

-Heidi Handelsman directs Erin Mallon in Brilliant Traces (no doubt, brilliantly)

-Michael Swartz and Zack Calhoon star in the Christmas WWI play, In The Fields Where They Lay. I've heard rumor that Michael will be singing, which is not something you want to miss.

-The Flea's production of The Great Recession features The Bats AND those playwrights who sit at The Cool Table. They might just let you sit with them...but you'll have to see the show.

-The ever daring folks at Working Man's Clothes are staging Chisa Hutchinson's She Likes Girls

-And it wouldn't be an Out and About without something inventively playful festival at The Brick: Fight Fest looks fierce, and features pals from Piper McKenzie doing Craven Monkey and the Mountain of Fury. Now that's a mugful of eggnog for you.

So what did I miss? What are you excited to see in between shopping?
*Sorry for that
Read the full story

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Flux Sunday, December 6th

Tuesday, December 8, 2009 4 comments

(What is Flux Sunday?)

Playwrights: Throwing Gumballs (Rob Ackerman), Projects (Erin Browne), Yellow Wallpaper (Katherine Burger), McTeague (James Comtois), Untitled Russian Project (David Ian Lee), Dinkles and Holly (Zack Robidas), Caged (Adam Szymkowicz)

Directors: Angela Astle, Heather Cohn, Nancy Franklin, August Schulenburg

Actors: Matthew Archambault, Jaime Robert Carrillo, Carissa Cordes, David Crommett, Becky Kelly, Ingrid Nordstrom, Gretchen Poulos, Brian Pracht, Jane Taylor, Isaiah Tanenbaum, Drew Valins, Richard Watson, Travis York

We're back! And as you can see from above, we had a full house. Highlights include:

- Zack Robidas' first pages, the Christmas-themed romp Dinkles and Holly (best line: elf-improvment?)
- Travis York's first FS, rocking out the disturbing-funny Man of Adam's Caged and the disturbing-frocked John of Katherine's Yellow Wallpaper.
- Becky Kelly's picnic enthusiasm as Trina in James' McTeague
- James showing the actors how it's done with his hilariously serious turns as Paul and Santa (yup, the Claus)
- Gretchen Polous' third rock star Flux Sunday in a row as the lonely/under pressure Emily in Erin's Projects
- Angela's moody environmental direction of David's Untitled Russian Project, with an all-star cast and lighting cues to boot (I'd pay to see Captain Adam ordering Zack to be funny)
- Rob Ackerman playing himself in Throwing Gumballs. 'Nuff said.

I was also fascinated by the speed of the first scene in Erin's Projects - usually in her work, the pauses are as important as the words, but the rapid pace made for an interesting dynamic. I also had a great time trying Adam's bird scene three different ways with Ingrid Nordstrom - that kind of trial and error is what makes these Sundays so valuable.

Artists who attended, what were your highs and lows? Read the full story

New Blogs, Play Development Edition

I've added some new blogs to the blog roll:

New Play Blog: This is the blog of the NEA's New Play Development Program at Arena Stage, currently hosting the fascinating fruits of their Defining Diversity forum (more on that anon).

The Lark: For some reason, this wasn't on our blog roll - problem fixed. Their monthly post features long form insight into different playwrights' process.

Touchstone Theatre: Our dear friends at Touchstone have a blog focusing on their young playwrights program - looking forward to learning more.

Mo'olelo Performing Arts Company: Artistic Director Seema Sueko previously posted some insightful comments on Mo'olelo's process in our Conversation vs Information post, and I hope their blog features more insight into their community based process.

And for good measure, I've added the cross-disciplinary online journal InDigest Magazine, which recently featured Rachel Cole's interview of Heather and I; and playwright Kristen Palmer's Daily Plays, her (almost) daily reading and writing about plays (my favorite recent posts include takes on A Loss Of Roses and Look Back In Anger).

Any good blogs worth adding that I've missed? Read the full story

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American Homicide

Sunday, December 6, 2009 1 comments

Quite a title for a theatre blog, yes, but a new book by Randolph Roth of the same title posits a fascinating link between homicide rates and faith in government. Sifting through four centuries of history, his research points to one consistent connection: when individuals trust their government, homicide rates fall. When they don't, they rise; and Roth links this relationship to America's persistently high homicide rates. To quote:

"The predisposition to murder is rooted in feelings and beliefs people have toward government and their fellow citizens...It is these factors, which may seem impossibly remote from murder, that hold the key to understanding why the United States is so homicidal today."
Read the whole article here. What emerges is that the predisposition to murder may be linked to a narrative of social distrust. While the methodologies described in the article seem perilously open to interpretation, there is a potential takeaway for theatre makers. Those narratives of social distrust should be wrestled with in our work, increasing our mutual capacity for imaginative empathy, and creating the possibility for civic compassion.

This doesn't mean that theatre is responsible for, or capable of, lowering murder rates; nor that theatre should indulge in feel-good message plays. Quite the opposite: imaginative empathy only matters when the devil of violence is given its full due; and the necessity of civic compassion only becomes clear when opposed against its opposite. But as this blog continues to explore the conceptual case for theatre as an integral part of democracy, this seemed a good article to highlight. Read the full story

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Interview With InDigest Magazine

(Photo by Tyler G Hicks-Wright. Pictured: Jake Alexander, Tiffany Clementi, Michael Davis)

Director Heather Cohn and I were interviewed about The Lesser Seductions of History by Rachel Cole for InDigest Magazine, an online literary magazine dedicated to dialogue about and between the arts. Rachel's column Play by Play previously featured a lovingly detailed review of Laika Dog In Space, and she brought that same detailed perceptiveness to our interview, asking questions that unpacked political legacies and quantum connections. It's a fun read.

A brief note about the interview - Heather arrived half-way through, so I didn't monopolize the conversation quite as much as it may seem. And as ever, if this interview inspires you, go to our audience response page and share your thoughts. Read the full story

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This One's For The Children

Saturday, December 5, 2009 0 comments

Check out a fascinating conversation regarding arts education funding over at A New Landscape in American Theatre, the Facebook page administered by Antonio Sonera. To quote Tony:

Currently in Portland, Oregon there is a group called CAN (Creative Advocacy Network) that is trying to establish a platform to bring to the voters which would enhance the funding for the arts in Portland. Our initial understanding was that this would be funding that would make a significant difference in funding for organizations. Now the word is that the" public" is mainly in support of Arts Education and Public Access. This was determined by polling some 400 people who vote in a tri-county area.
The executive director of CAN has promised two things: that there will be organizational funding, but that in order for the tax initiative to pass that "children must be a focus" and promised that children and arts would be used in a campaign.
He goes on to voice his concerns about this shift, worrying that mission creep towards arts education may inorganically happen to obtain the funding, that "public access" devalues art by making it free, and that the emphasis on children lowers the value of the arts for all, or as Jan Powell in the comments puts it:
Arts funding would be more truly helpful if it were apportioned in approximately the percentages we think are reasonable to ask of artists--say 80% of their time should be spent creating art, and 20% devoted to access and education. Unless society thinks artists should actually be teachers, and not artists.

Education and access should be outgrowths/offshoots of the artist's work, not the primary focus. Tail wags the dog, otherwise.
This reminded me of the fascinating Centerpiece published by my employer TCG that details the breakdown of resources allocated in education programs by age demographic. 81% of those programs were geared for the age group 5-18 compared to 12% for ages 19-25 and 9% for ages 26-40 (percentage total 118% due to statistical model used). If this sample of 102 theatres is consistent across the field, it looks like theatres are abandoning audience education right at the moment when we are most likely to lose them.

This also reminds me of Scott Walter's excellent work over at Less Than 100K project (soon to be renamed CRADLE), and his belief that the professional artist should empower audiences to access their own creativity. In a recent post, he links to a post at Faith and Foolishness that says much the same:
We put forth a lot of effort figuring out ways to nurture and support their budding talents, and our kids reap the benefits as both their abilities and their confidence soar. And yet, once those children and teenagers turn into thirty-somethings or fifty-somethings, that encouragement evaporates.
So arts education is reduced to teaching children when it could be expanded to empowering all members of a community towards their own creativity. It's like there's a huge chasm between children and middle-aged arts patrons, and we're allocating all of our resources to push kids towards that fall and no resources towards building a bridge.

Beyond our weekly workshop Flux Sunday, and our more inclusive ForePlay series, Flux doesn't have much to offer yet towards this particular vision of arts education as creative empowerment. What companies offer better models? I'm thinking of Cornerstone Theater right now, which empowered the creation of Teatro Jornalero Sin Fronteras, the theatre company comprised of LA day laborers who met at a Cornerstone project and decided to start their own company.

So join the conversation over at A New Landscape for American Theatre, and post examples of similarly successful models below. Read the full story

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Joe Mathers on Lesser Seductions

Wednesday, December 2, 2009 0 comments

(Photo: Tyler G. Hicks-Wright. Pictured: Matthew Archambault)
I was thrilled to see that one of our co-founders and former members Joe Mathers had started a blog (covering stage combat - I hope he'll be covering Fight Fest at the Brick) and even more thrilled he saw The Lesser Seductions of History and blogged about it. He is not alone in having philosophical differences with the play, and if you are like him (or even if you loved every bit of it), I hope you'll take a moment to post your comments here. In the next two weeks, I will respond more in depth to the wonderful feedback in those comments, and talk about the future life of the play, so I hope very much that if you were thinking of commenting but just hadn't done so, you will comment now.

Thanks, and be sure to follow Joe's blog - I've added it to our blogroll.
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The Transcendental Social

Tuesday, December 1, 2009 1 comments

Three interesting things regarding the brain and how we tell stories:

The Transcendental Social: A Denmark study that found that praying to God activated regions of the brain associated with talking to a friend, reinforcing a theory linking religious faith to theory of mind, the idea that our capacity to imagine the intentions and thoughts of other beings was a defining cognitive evolution. In other words, our capacity for empathy may have led directly to our capacity for faith.

This led anthropologist Maurice Bloch to coin the term Transcendental Social:

Uniquely, humans could use what Bloch calls the "transcendental social" to unify with groups, such as nations and clans, or even with imaginary groups such as the dead. The transcendental social also allows humans to follow the idealised codes of conduct associated with religion.

"What the transcendental social requires is the ability to live very largely in the imagination," Bloch writes.

"One can be a member of a transcendental group, or a nation, even though one never comes in contact with the other members of it," says Bloch. Moreover, the composition of such groups, "whether they are clans or nations, may equally include the living and the dead."

It's not a big leap to imagine how theatre connects to the ideas above: the evolutionary need to live in the imagination as a means to develop empathy and balance individual desires within a social framework lives in the practice of theatre. The Transcendental Social may be a direct result of the cognitive evolution of what Arlene Goldbard calls Imaginative Empathy, and an essential part of the relationship of democracy and theatre.

Twitter and the Global Brain: Dean Pomerleau wrote a fascinating article about how Twitter is beginning to mirror the way our brains create meaning. Basically, the way synapses develop relationships is similar to how tweeting, retweeting and following moves information through Twitter. Dean suggests ways that Twitter could mirror our brains even more, reaching a semi-autonomy that would lead to something approaching a global consciousness.

This is an imaginative world, the Transcendental Social, on an enormous scale, with information moving and relationships developing organically in real time. However, this world lacks the Presence of theatre, and it is an open question if true Imaginative Empathy is possible without presence. This may be the essential question theatre needs to ask if it is to survive in a future where connection and story are only a click away.

The Baboon Skull: Michael Finkel's article for National Geographic about the Hadza of Tanzania gives us one possible answer. The Hadza are one of the few remaining true hunter-gatherer societies left. They practice no agriculture, have few possessions, they don't have wedding ceremonies or funerals, they don't practice any codified religion, they don't celebrate birthdays; they hunt four to six hours a day, and spend the rest in relative autonomy, in stark comparison with our over scheduled lives of social obligations (the article makes clear their challenges, though, trying to avoid romantic notions of what is a difficult existence).

But they do have theatre, and it is undoubtedly a theatre of Presence. Here is an edited account of Michael's version of a story told after a successful baboon hunt - read the whole thing here:
With the baboon skull still in the fire, Onwas rises to his feet and claps his hands and begins to speak. It's a giraffe-hunting story—Onwas's favorite kind...Onwas elongates his neck and moves around on all fours when he's playing the part of the giraffe. He jumps and ducks and pantomimes shooting a bow when he's illustrating his own role. Arrows whoosh. Beasts roar. Children run to the fire and stand around, listening intently; this is their schooling. The story ends with a dead giraffe—and as a finale, a call and response.

"Am I a man?" asks Onwas, holding out his hands.

"Yes!" shouts the group. "You are a man."

"Am I a man?" asks Onwas again, louder.

"Yes!" shouts the group, their voices also louder. "You are a man!"

Onwas then reaches into the fire and pulls out the skull. He hacks it open, like a coconut, exposing the brains, which have been boiling for a good hour inside the skull. They look like ramen noodles, yellowish white, lightly steaming. He holds the skull out, and the men, including myself, surge forward and stick our fingers inside the skull and scoop up a handful of brains and slurp them down. With this, the night, at last, comes to an end.

It is always dangerous to infer too much about a different culture, particularly from a second hand account. But the article does remind me of the importance of Presence to story, how it passes on the essential meaning of experience, how often our theatre fails to thrust forward that baboon's skull, and how exciting it is when that call and response reminds us what it means to be human. Read the full story