Getting Over Ourselves

TCG Conferences can bring out the “I” in me. I’ve been to many over the years and they never fail to dredge up some deep insecurities:

What am I doing here?
Should I go talk to him? She has no idea who I am.
What sessions should I attend?
What am I going to say? I have nothing to say.
Should I go to the plenary session or go lay down?
Why did I wear this stupid shirt?

At the TCG Conference 2011 held June 16–18 in Los Angeles we were all asked to consider What If? In this essay I’m going to ask, “What if we could get over ourselves?” What kind of TCG Conferences might be possible and what kind of future could we create for our field?

Clayton Lord in his terrific post in Arts Journal last week concluded after attending both TCG and American for the Arts Conference (AFTA) that getting over ourselves might mean:

the collapse of the hierarchical, monolithic arts organization not into dust, but into a flatter, brighter, airier, and more transparent facilitator.

I like these words “flatter, brighter, airier." I like imagining this future. And my attraction to these words rests in an awareness that I’m lighter and airier and more transparent when I unhinge from obsessing over myself and feel the buoyancy that community and shared sense of purpose can provide.

On the shoulders of giants
At the conference Todd London reminded us that we stand on the shoulders of giants (thanks James Still) as he recapped the origins of the American theater in the twentieth century. We rose to our feet in appreciation and pride in what brought us together on this day, on the fifty-year anniversary of TCG. For a moment we forgot about our personal agendas and felt a shared sense of our past and a glimpse of our future purpose together.

Earlier in the day, futurist David Houle had given us a sense of where we were headed. In this new world order that he has named the Shift Age, he asserted two things that stuck with me—the increased power of the individual to shape his or her reality, and the rise of the value of intellectual property in a culture where imagining the next transformative idea can lead to big payouts.

As the future and the past collided in the form of Houle and London, I ask: how could the “we” of our collective history ever survive in a future where the “I” of individualism rules the day and where the desire for accumulating property (though shifted from physical property to ideas) was still the driving force of our economy?

I turn to my own futurist Lewis Hyde who has transformed my thinking on more than one occasion. Hyde’s most recent book, Common as Air: Revolution, Art and Ownership, traces the history of the rise of intellectual property in America. Hyde reminds us:

All that we make and do is shaped by the communities and traditions that contain us, not to mention by money, power, politics, and luck. And even should an artist or scientist think she has extracted herself from the world to stand alone in the studio, a tremendous array of mindsets may well attend her creativity.

Hyde persuasively claims that the past, present, and future of creative life are inextricably linked. That all of the individual creativity that drives us—all of our “I’s”—are informed by the giants who have come before us. But perhaps the shift is more about speed—the speed by which ideas are generated and decimated. The speed by which a glimmer of an idea becomes the next thing, the new thing, becomes the bandwagon we all jump on, the band instruments we play, the sounds we broadcast, the listeners listening—the “I’s” become instant cacophony and we can no longer locate where it all started. If all we remember is our own ideas, and if this new access to the means of production just allows the “I” of the individual to open its big fat mouth and insert itself wherever it damn well pleases in the form of blog postings, text messaging, tweeting, video, with no accountability to what’s come before, well that’s a problem.

In the world of this differently empowered “I” what is most quickly elided is the idea that we are an amalgamation of what’s preceded us. Speed makes it easy to forget.

In the world of the fast-talking “I” we forget to give credit. We forget that people were thinking yesterday about things that feel urgent to us today.

But if we’re willing to consider that there are few if any truly original ideas, and if most intellectual property is the result of the ideas that have preceded our “I”: what ideas can and should be owned?

Credit where credit is due
Every organization and individual needs an “I,” an identity. When I ran the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, I sought to brand it like any organizational leader. The identity for the PWC that made most sense to me at the time was to tell the story of impact on the field, to produce evidence of our relevance by clearly identifying our contribution to the work on stages around the country. It seemed the best way to make that case was to find ways to take credit and prove ownership like:

Playwright X developed that play here and it went to Broadway and won the Pulitzer and if it hadn’t been for the Playwrights’ Center…

Playwrights X, Y, and Z are Playwrights’ Center writers....

Of the twenty new plays produced this year, ten were developed at the PWC…. You get the gist. But the problems to this approach were many:

  1. It put the playwright in a strange relationship to the organization because every organization connected to a playwright is trying to do the same thing. Can you be a Playwrights’ Center playwright and a playwright of ten other organizations?
  2. Someone always gets left out of the credit game.
  3. Locating credit and origins usually perpetuates half-truths. When a bunch of us in the new play development world got together at the request and good thinking of Philip Himberg at Sundance and started to track back credit and origins we realized that many new plays and playwrights were affiliated with multiple play development centers.

The “I” of Institution can begin to look much like the “I” of Individual. Branding the identity of an organization can perpetuate the same notion of singularity—we rush to own ideas about making theater and we seek to own the art and the artist. But the “I” of our institutions reflects the same amalgamation of a shared history as the “I” of the individual.

I asked myself: should we go on telling these half-truths? Should we continue to ask playwrights to embrace our lie about how it all came to be? Our organizational “I’s” were more truthfully a “we” and we had all been contributing to the cultural commons in developing artists and new plays. Why weren’t we telling this story together?

I am also acutely aware that if I had said to funders, “Yeah, we do great things but so do a lot of other folks and let me tell you about them,” my message would not have been as compelling. We all traffic—funders included—in the “I” business.

The Cultural Commons
Can an age where individuals have found new ways to intervene and imagine lead to a greater sense of recognition about what we have in common? Couldn’t this heightened sense of our own power to intervene in the stories that get told actually lead toward a more connected sense of our shared history and identity? We share so much as a field:

  1. We share artists. Artistic life is a migratory business and many theater artists work across multiple institutions. They are a part of our cultural commons, the creative and intellectual life that gives our field its identity. We don’t own them.
  2. We share the work. We often produce work that our colleagues produce. Plays and devised work live in multiple institutions. The work or at least a piece of the work belongs to the cultural commons and a singular institution can only own it for so long. How long is too long?
  3. We share practices. We develop plays and ideas and artists and we use some common principles in our understanding of what constitutes best practices.
  4. We share ideas. TCG conferences are just one of the many places we congregate in the hopes of standing on the shoulders of giants. We learn from our colleagues so that every effort neither feels original nor requires starting from the beginning.

Trending together
To close the conference we had the opportunity to hear Julie Taymor talk publicly for the first time about the controversies surrounding the production of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. She articulated the problem with the production this way: “Twitter and Facebook and blogging just trump you. It’s very hard to create. It’s incredibly difficult to be under a shot glass and a microscope like that.” The Broadway audience focus groups interfered with Taymor’s vision. But the power of individuals to opine about anything and everything and send those opinions around the world didn’t just upend Spiderman—it messed with the Taymor’s TCG interview too. The interviewer wasn’t wearing socks and during the interview I got to watch #socks start trending from the audience (i.e., audience members listening to Taymor were tweeting with the appellation #socks. The hashtag organizes messages around keywords or topics). For better or worse, #socks is how I’ll remember that interview.

A meme
Vijay Mathew, the co-associate director of the American Voices New Play Institute, texted me at the end of the conference—“the meme of TCG 2011—generosity.”

If we are to share better it’s going to take a major change in—
How we think about ourselves.
How we think about our organizations.
How we think about intellectual property.

We’re going to have to be more secure in ourselves and believe in what we have to contribute as individuals and institutions. Sharing more will take us back to some of the impulses for building a not-for-profit theater; a belief in something more than exchange value—paid tickets in exchange for seats—as the purpose for our lives and missions.

This will demand a sea change in our practices—
Changing our relationship to what we think we own.
Changing how we define our institutions and our brand.
Changing our relationship to each other.

Sharing better will require a new generosity. It will require giving credit, sharing credit, and forgoing credit. It will require building new institutions and rebuilding old ones.

To my mind flatter, brighter, and airier will require reconstituted “I’s” with a deep passion for embracing the “we” of the future of the American theater. Perhaps trending #socks is more fun than listening to an interviewer drone on—and being involved in that kind of trending moment makes one acutely aware of the potential of the “we” of the future—the I’s can effectively trend together and create new ideas, new conversations, and new practices. But can we harness #socks into #IandWe? Can we accept the risk and embrace the opportunity to situate ourselves comfortably on the shoulders of giants for the sake of a future we have yet to imagine?