Apr 11, 2011

Inspiring Lists

If the point of the Arena's new-play blog HowlRound is to stimulate controversy and conversation, it's done a pretty good job of it so far. But editor Polly Carl clearly has something more encompassing in mind than mere provocation, as she proves with a thoughtful post today. Partly inspired by the untimely of death of her former colleague Tom Proehl, her "Notes on Generosity in the Theater" has some keeper insights for both artists and administrators. Talking about the "scarcity mindset" of many theater practitioners (and lovers/advocates):
I, too, am prone to the scarcity approach to the work, the ominous sense that there is only so much opportunity out there and that the circumference of the pie is finite and the pieces we divide among ourselves limited. As artists we compete for gigs, attention, recognition, patronage, and opportunities. As organizations we compete for funding, contributions, and audience. As a field we compete to be relevant. We are competing for credit, position, and power, even if we’re uncomfortable admitting it, even if we have no taste for blood sports, we are all playing the game. And this competition for our piece of the action can make us all feel victimized by a poverty of the imagination that there just isn’t enough to go around.

The scarcity mentality relies on victims to flourish. Certain stories that we tell ourselves over and over rely on the idea that there isn’t enough. These are some scarcity narratives in the theater: The story that plays are developed to death rather than produced. The story that artists are at odds with institutions. The story that nonprofit theater is beginning to merge with commercial theater. The story that pits playwrights against directors and directors against dramaturgs and everyone against artistic directors. These are all narratives driven by a feeling of lack—lack of respect, lack of understanding, lack of appreciation. How do we cross a new threshold? How can start to re-imagine new stories?
Carl doesn't wish away the problem but instead hones in on one reason why a sense of scarcity recurs, with reference to Lewis Hyde's book The Gift:
If art is, as I believe it to be, a gift that transforms our lives and transports us from death to life, then the transactional nature of making art will always be an ill fit. It’s why we bristle at high-priced theater tickets and huge disparities between the lowest and highest paid staff in arts institutions. We’re products of a market-driven culture but gifts in moments of transformation supersede the forces of the market. Making art falls somewhere in between commerce and transformation.
She then goes on to give some practicable, care-of-the-collective-soul steps toward a more generous and healthy theater.

Which reminded me of this great list forwarded (and later preached on) by one of the pastors at my great little church in Greenpoint, which addresses a different--but, to me at least, strongly correlated--struggle between scarcity and generosity. If both the theater and the church (the kind of liberal Protestant church I belong to, anyway) seem ever endangered, out of step, out of the mainstream, against the cultural grain--feel like "lost causes," in other words--it's helpful to be reminded that in large part that's how these enterprises are bound to feel in a pluralist, capitalist culture, and that we ought to embrace their critical function in that system rather than feel like perpetual redheaded stepchildren.

And, in a related point, it's good to remember that such self-selecting activities and group affiliations, while not intrinsically a good in themselves, can be extraordinary social goods without which our lives would be infinitely poorer. I mean, frankly, when the indignities and exigencies of life in New York City inevitably wear me down, the two things that most make me feel like I belong here are the theater and my church (the Met and the High Line are close on that list, too).

No comments: