“My vocation changed everything: the sword-strokes fly off, the writing remains; I discovered in the belles-lettres that the Giver can be transformed into his own Gift, that is, into a pure object. Chance had made me a man, generosity would make me a book.” —Jean-Paul Sartre
These are the words that open the third chapter, “The Labor of Gratitude,” of Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift—a must read for any artist. Last week I spent a lot of time thinking about generosity. I don’t think there’s enough of it in this field and I was reminded of its transformative power as I grappled with the unexpected and untimely loss of a mentor and friend. In that moment of stunned sadness I considered the many gifts this lovely man had given me and wondered about how I might best honor his example.
Hyde talks about a long and cross-cultural tradition of threshold gifts, gifts that we give at moments of transformation in our lives—baptismal celebrations, wedding gifts, funeral flowers. In these moments of transformation when we move from one threshold to the next, when we transform ourselves to join in union with another, for example—when we marry—we let go of a part of ourselves, and the gifts we receive acknowledge what we give up in order to move forward—“they guide us to a new life, assuring our passage away from what is dying.” It’s hard to tear ourselves away from what we’ve known, to leave behind where we’ve been, so difficult to embrace transformation and new life. It’s why we don’t leap willy nilly into marriage and struggle to accept the inevitability of death.
In the theater, I experience this fear in the scarcity mindset that is prevalent in much of the conversations that shape our field. Perhaps it’s easy for me to point this out as I sit in the midst of abundance most days, lucky to have infrastructure and means to accomplish the work I am passionate about. But 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 we start to re-imagine new stories?
In Hyde’s book he contends, “market exchange will always seem inappropriate on the threshold.” When I read this, I know why nonprofit (versus commercial) theater is where I’ve decided to maintain my focus. 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. “A man who would buy and sell at the moment of change…will be torn apart. He will become one of the done-for dead who truly die. Threshold gifts protect us from such death.” As theater makers how can we better create the conditions for generosity—where threshold stories can be told and transformations can occur ? How can we avoid becoming the “done-for dead?”
Here are some thoughts:
1. Regardless of where you are in your career as a theater maker, seek to mentor. Recognize that you have a responsibility to foster the passions and dreams and aspirations of others and there is almost always someone who has less experience in this business than you. As Hyde says, it’s only when we release our own gifts do they become ours—it’s in the giving that potential is actualized. Generosity transforms us into artists. To be an artist is a becoming not a being.
2. “Once the gift has stirred within us it is up to us to develop it.” I have articulated Hyde’s sentiment over the years telling artists to become their own arts administrators. No agent, artistic director, or advocate of any kind will make your career for you. Give yourself the gift of access to the means of production. Learn how to raise money and manage budgets. Strategize ways to connect with institutions and other artists you admire. I believe the more control you have over your own career, the more generous you’ll feel.
3. If you run an arts organization, drop what you’re doing immediately and create an ethics statement. Every organization has a mission statement but the nonprofit arts organization requires an ethical approach. Answer the hard questions, such as what is a responsible spread between the lowest and highest paid person in the organization, inclusive of artists and administrators? Make a clear accounting of the intersection and collision between commercial and nonprofit interests. What values does your organization hold sacred and are you willing to make them transparent? Are you willing to engage honest and open communication as you shape and prepare to live by this statement? Honesty and openness are forms of generosity.
4. Take the long view. “For the slow labor of realizing a potential gift the artist must retreat to the Bohemias, halfway betweens the slums and the library, where life is not counted by the clock and where the talented will be sure they will be ignored until that time, if it ever comes, when their gifts are viable enough to be set free and survive in the world.” If you take the risk of exercising your gift, you must acknowledge the truth that it may never be recognized and that lack of recognition doesn’t take away from your identity as an artist, and it’s not a reflection on the quality of the art you make. The long view will give you endurance and protect you from the poison cloud of bitterness that hovers in close proximity to the life of the artist. Bitterness is the enemy of generosity.
5. Don’t read reviews. I mean this. Really. Don’t read your reviews. Compliments are a pleasant distraction but I bet you can find more meaningful kudos from trusted colleagues. Negative reviews will never be constructive because they are just too damn personal. You’ve made something. It’s a reflection of your deepest passions and pains and then you must give it away to this unknown entity called an audience. Who are they? And what gives them the right to criticize your work? Of course they have every right to their opinions, but these random criticisms will only hinder your evolution as an artist. It’s simply impossible not to perseverate over every hint of unkindness coming from some unknown, usually disembodied voice. Random criticisms from strangers eat away at you. The fewer things that eat away at your creative energy, the more productive you will be, the more likely you will have energy for others, the less likely you will be to compare your reviews with those of your colleagues.
6. Get over the myth of entitlement. No one owes you anything in this business or in life. The surest way to feeling victimized is to feel owed and to feel owed is to be at a deficit. Deficits leave you with nothing to give. “The Gift is not merely the witness or guardian to new life, but the creator.”
In my very darkest days at the Playwrights’ Center, of which there were more than a few in the early going, I felt consistently at a deficit, victimized by other people who felt victimized—it was such an ugly cycle. But I was lucky because I had mentors who were wiser and smarter and more generous than I. One of those was Tom Proehl, my friend who passed away last week. He was on my board of directors and he was sage beyond his years. I feel certain that one year I called him three hundred times and every phone call was received with attention and warmth. Tom always had time. He understood deeply how arts organizations function, he was compelled to share his gift. He always encouraged me to take the high road, to see the good in people and the hope in hopeless situations. He propped me up and he stood by me. He’s one of a handful of people who have compelled me to be a better person than perhaps my nature left to its own devices would accommodate. This article, my wish for greater generosity in a field of tremendous abundance, is my labor undertaken in gratitude for the gift received.