The Anxiety of Generosity and the Abundance of the Commons
Keynote speech delivered at North Dakota State University “Playing on Common Ground: Theatre and the Complex Communities of the 21st Century” celebrating 100 years of theatre at NDSU on May 1, 2014.
Today I want to talk about my work at HowlRound: A Center for the Theatre Commons at Emerson College. We are a communications platform that includes an online journal, a livestreaming television channel, an interactive data map, and in-person convenings around key issues facing the theatre. But more importantly we’re an enterprise interested in using our communication tools to build a theatre commons—a place for the exchange of resources in the broadest sense of that term, a place sometimes virtual, sometimes in-person, where we share the resources we have and use the resources we need. By definition a commons is for the benefit of an entire community, accessible to all who desire to participate. Today I want to spend time exploring the key principles required to make a commons, to promote a world where theatre practice lives both in the market economy we are all familiar with, but can also live inside a communal space, a commons where money is only one resource among many. I’m going to travel a circuitous route to get us to “why HowlRound, why a theatre commons, why now?”
These past couple of months I’ve been forced to be the beneficiary of countless acts of generosity. It’s funny to use the word “forced” in relationship to generosity. It feels like a word that requires a different sentiment. I should say instead, “I’ve graciously received countless acts of generosity.” But it some ways it feels forced because circumstances required that I say yes to these acts of kindness.
At the end of March two major life events happened simultaneously. My father-in-law passed away and my spouse and I had to move apartments. These two moments overlapped exactly, so much so that in between the funeral in St. Louis for my father-in-law and his burial in Buffalo, New York, I flew back to Boston and moved apartments while my spouse and her brothers managed burial arrangements.
I’m sorry to start off this talk with mention of funerals, but it’s no surprise that our most difficult life moments are also times when our thinking comes into sharper focus. And I’ve been thinking about generosity in the theatre so much these last few years wondering why we can’t embrace the concept with ease and graciousness, and March 2014 gave me insight.
The acts of kindness this past March are too numerous to list, but I’ll list some of them: While my spouse Lynette was in St. Louis with her father in his last moments, two friends came over and packed our entire apartment with me. They did it calmly, happily, and with great care to every item that went in a box or to the trash or to recycling. When I jumped on a plane to say good-bye to my father-in-law, another friend came over and watched our dog. It turned out she stayed ten days. She also did the final packing when my flight was cancelled and I couldn’t get in to town until hours before the move was to happen. Another friend watched our dog while the move took place and cooked dinner the night of the move. At the visitation in St. Louis a friend who lives in the Netherlands sent her parents to be with us in her stead. My brother flew in for the visitation just to be with me for hours of standing and greeting. When my spouse and I finally returned to Boston, we were greeted with flowers and a refrigerator full of groceries, a gift certificate for take out from a restaurant in our new neighborhood, and a box of fresh food of all of our favorite Italian meats and cheeses.
I wept at the generosity. And I felt uncomfortable. I wanted to write big checks to pay for it all, to send thank you notes with hundred dollar bills. I struggled to say yes to all of the love and kindness. And I was surprised by my discomfort—especially considering I like to talk about the concept of generosity in the theatre as critical to our survival. I had an acute moment of anxiety. Who knew generosity could make you so anxious?
And I understand my discomfort as a kind of confusion, one made possible because love and money are so intertwined now. I don’t know how many of you have paid for a funeral recently, but to pay any kind of proper respect to your loved ones, expect to shell out between 15 and 20k. In this milieu of overlap between the market and those moments in life we hold sacred, it sometimes can be more comfortable to just pay our way—through grief and to the theatre.
And in the last three years since my colleagues and I have been working in the context of HowlRound and perpetuating the idea that sharing, abundance, and generosity are at the core of creating a successful infrastructure for creative practice, I’ve seen a similar resistance to what we call in our work, “positive inquiry.”
The idea of “positive inquiry” doesn’t mean we shy away from hard conversations, or that we won’t promote critical discourse, it only means we see our role as promoting dialogue through the invitation to participate rather than shutting down dialogue for the satisfaction of tearing down people and institutions.
We strive to carve out a space for a creative culture that is more than transactional, one that puts conversation and learning at the fore and puts the emphasis on the role of theatre in civic life instead of on the way theatre has been consumed and subsumed by the market economy. Some have found our frame of inquiry “Pollyanna like.”
On the one hand, we might ask, who resists generosity as a frame for making art? But on the other hand, if you consider the current cultural context within which we all practice, the difficulty of generosity becomes more apparent. And in this context where words like generosity actually prove contentious—financial transactions can feel less risky.
An Attack on Generosity
In the past year I’ve written two posts for our online journal HowlRound. One was an apology for a piece of criticism we published that had a tone that did not represent the kind of positive inquiry HowlRound insists upon for anything it publishes. The other was a recommendation for the New Year where I suggested we embrace scholar Jill Dolan’s idea of “Critical Generosity” in our writing about the theatre. Dolan’s idea is that we can be both rigorous about talking about the work and generous at the same time. I suggested in 2014 we consider this approach and just try to be a little nicer in our online communication. Of course it never occurred to me that my suggestion to be nicer would enrage people. People opposed the word and the sentiment.
My apology on HowlRound was called by one artist, “the worst thing to happen in the American theatre ever.” Again, in my attempts to try and foster productive conversation, something terribly ugly emerged—a desire to tear down and a desire to protect the “right” to tear down. I was trying to say something nuanced—that I was supportive of the critical elements of the essay, but opposed to the tone in which those criticisms were delivered. But many readers rejected the idea of positive inquiry as a frame for criticism.
I won’t rehash the long and in many cases useful and important conversations that took place around these two posts, but I will say that both moments have pushed me to go deeper, to consider the “why” behind our sense that tearing down is somehow an essential part of making theatre, of making conversation—that positive inquiry might prove a threat to the enterprise of theatrical practice and in fact make us anxious.
In this universe it feels like the possibilities for theatre are limited, and that competition must trump collaboration—by tearing down some art and artists, others (a very few) will be able to rise to the top. In this worldview, the theatre and the market place simply become one, a survival of the fittest, rooted in a world of scarcity where only a handful can succeed.
For me, carving out new spaces for theatre practitioners to succeed requires a rethinking of why generosity matters, why wealth is not just money, and why competition can’t define our methodology for art making.
This notion is particularly frightening to me in the context of an academic setting, as I work in one now at Emerson College and have the opportunity to meet on a daily basis the future of our theatre in the students on campus and in my office. Is my job to pit these students against one another, to raise some above others, to determine who will make it, and who won’t? Or is my job to introduce students to a version of the world where perhaps there are enough different kinds of opportunity for all of them to thrive? For me, carving out new spaces for theatre practitioners to succeed requires a rethinking of why generosity matters, why wealth is not just money, and why competition can’t define our methodology for art making.
Competition Versus Collaboration
In their book Creating Wealth: Growing Local Economies with Local Currencies, Gwendolyn Hallsmith and Bernard Lietaer suggest that “games of competition and collaboration are the polar ends of the ways humans can interact.” They suggest that we currently live in a one-game economy that is based in the competition side of the equation. It’s how a money economy works, it’s a scarcity approach to survival, there’s only so much to go around. And so we compete. We compete for students. We compete for grant money. We compete with other theatres in town for audience. We compete for internships and leadership positions, and we compete for the best reviews. We also compete for plays and for world premiers; we seek to be the first to discover a new talent. Our relevance is judged by how much we win.
But as theatre practitioners we know the second game, the other side of the competition pole that Hallsmith and Lietaer talk about, quite well. Collaboration is that part of what we do that we can’t monetize. How do you put a price tag on the moment-by-moment coming together of a production? And we know in the heat of the tech process we aggregate knowledge capital—the sum total of what each different practitioner in the room brings to the process—in a way that we would all agree (at least in the not-for-profit theatre and the university theatre) is worth more than the sum total that each practitioner is paid for that production.
Now, I’ve just explained to you what HowlRound is trying to do in building a theatre commons. We are interested in aggregating the resources of the theatre that everyone should have access to in a common place, minimizing the emphasis on price tag, and maximizing the emphasis on what resources we have that we can bring to the table to share and using what resources we need that others have so generously offered.
Hallsmith and Lietaer tell us that many economists now acknowledge that “40-50 percent of productive economic activity takes place outside of the market and is not measured by traditional indicators”—economist Edgar Cahn call this our Core Economy.
When it was clear that there were no further treatment options for my father-in-law all of us as a family activated both the money economy—we hired hospice—and the Core Economy—we created a family care team that tracked medications, monitored pain levels, changed sheets, prepared meals, etc. Cahn suggests that the time families spend to keep seniors out of nursing homes each year by creating similar kinds of care teams accounted for $257 billion dollars of unpaid work in 2000.
At HowlRound, we’re interested in the Core Economy of the theatre—the things that make it tick, the ways we get the work done, and the collaborative and generous spirit we bring to a creative world that cannot exist without acknowledging all of the unpaid and underpaid acts that result in art. But what gets in the way of acknowledging and valuing this Core Economy? We must talk about knowledge that is both untapped and not distributed for the good of others, and theatres with multimillion dollar endowments that sit unused while starving artists are limited to choosing whether to pay for car repairs or teeth cleaning. We must talk about spaces that were paid for using community dollars and tax breaks, but are unavailable to artists for rehearsals—that sit empty waiting for the market transaction to activate them. We need to take a second look at the emphasis on building up big marketing and development departments to compete for the same resources in a single community.
Hallsmith and Lietaer say that wealth is well-being and that “we are in possession of well-being when our needs are met,” that “finding sufficiency in matching unmet needs with underutilized resources creates an abundance that is otherwise not available.” Our care team for my father-in-law provided him “well-being”—as a family working together we used the resources we possessed. My brother-in-law works in Human Resources and is an expert at managing the healthcare system. He knew immediately the best hospice to call. I’m a great producer, I knew how to get our apartment packed in our absence, I knew how to find the best flight deals to get us to St. Louis and then Buffalo. My spouse is an amazing cook, she knew how to feed us through it all, and she was an expert at assessing my father-in-law’s needs as the best listener in the bunch. As a team we matched needs and resources, and nobody paid anybody else—caring for a loved one is part of civic and family life. The monetary costs are only part of the equation. The resources born out of love and family commitment are as essential as those services we must pay for and in this case our abundance of family resources made it possible for us to attend to the well-being of my father-in-law.
We’re interested in the well-being of the theatre—a theatre that meets the needs of its artists and its audience.
What Money Can’t Buy
And yet we’re a culture obsessed with putting a price tag on everything now, and the theatre hasn’t escaped the trajectory of our culture, one where as Michael Sandel points out in his excellent book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, “the most fateful change that unfolded during the past three decades was not an increase in greed. It was the expansion of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life where they don’t belong.” There’s nothing like death to remind us of the strangeness of the omnipresence of markets. When we were all looking for flights from St. Louis to Buffalo, from the funeral to the final burial of my father-in-law, we thought, oh yes, bereavement flights. We had already spent thousands of dollars flying back and forth from Boston to St. Louis, and we had hoped that perhaps we might catch a break. After a lot of Internet time, many conversations with different airlines, the best we could come up with was a 10 percent discount from Delta. Death doesn’t really move corporations to much generosity. In then end they know we’ll pay or miss the burial.
Sandel’s example of Bruce Springsteen’s attempts to control his own ticket prices for his concerts is particularly instructive for the theatre. In 2009 in an effort to make his concert as accessible as possible Springsteen limited the highest ticket price to $95 even though he could have charged much more. Not surprisingly, this led to rampant ticket scalping. Economists estimated that Springsteen cost himself about $4 million by charging less than the market rate. Springsteen, Sandel says, recognizes that “the performance consists not only in the songs but also in the relationship between the performer and the audience, and the spirit in which they gather.”
And this is what I want us to think about as we consider the future of our art form, the live event that many of us hold sacred—in what spirit do we gather?
Yes, we have a pricing scheme alive and well in the American theatre called “dynamic pricing”—it rewards those who buy tickets early, and jacks up the price on successful shows, so if there is a lot of buzz, and you think you might want to see a “hit” later in the run, good luck—you’re likely in the not-for-profit theatre to need about $200. Is dynamic pricing illegal? No? Will its advocates argue that those expensive tickets help to keep the theatre alive—sure. But like Sandel, I wonder to what degree our obsession with theatre as a commodity is, to use his word, a form of “corruption.” As he says “to corrupt a good or a social practice is to degrade it, to treat it according to a lower mode of valuation than is appropriate to it.” When we charge $200 for a ticket to a play in a not-for-profit venue, in a venue that purports to be serving a community with accessible art, to what degree do we corrupt the value of our own work? Sandel tells another story of campsite scalping that went on at Yosemite National Park, people queuing up for first-come-first-serve campsites and then selling their spots on Craigslist for exorbitant fees even though the resale of reservations is prohibited. In an editorial that broke the story, the writer contends, “The wonders of Yosemite belong to all of us … not just those who can afford to fork over extra cash to a scalper.” And I wonder about who the wonders of the theatre belong to?
I don’t think anyone would argue against the reality that the dominant culture pushes us toward markets, toward finding the monetary value in what we do. And in truth, the theatre has been quite good at engaging the market place. There’s a lot of money in our business—commercial deals with Broadway, high administrative salaries, big expensive buildings, and massive endowments. And yet, we keep telling ourselves that there isn’t enough to go around. And in fact we demonstrate this scarcity model when we underpay actors and directors and playwrights—common and well-documented practices. And I wonder what message this sends our theatre students who are still dreaming of creative lives. How does the message of survival at any and all costs impact a student’s ability to dream a creative life of abundance instead of scarcity? To dream a creative life of collaboration instead of competition? Is there room for idealism in this century? And if so, what will it take for us to mentor and encourage future visionaries? Will it mean training our theatre students to get an MBA or mentoring them to a more holistic view of civic life, one in which theatre is a wonder that belongs to all of us?
And I propose—taking our cue from Sandel and others—that part of this work will require identifying the moral limits of markets. Yes, I think the most important work we have to do in the theatre is to define more clearly where our work lives in our community and then believe wholeheartedly that we can carve out a space of value for that work that cannot be fully defined by the transaction of dollars for tickets.
Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis began a radical hospitality program three years ago, making free tickets accessible to its audience—if you want to attend theatre at Mixed Blood, money won’t be the barrier. Jack Reuler, the artistic director of Mixed Blood, says of this rethinking of the value of a ticket: “We really feel that purpose and principle supersede survival. We’re going to live life on our own terms, and if tomorrow is the last day, we will have done it the way we intended to do it.”
Over 50 percent of the people entering by way of Radical Hospitality are under thirty, 37 percent of them make less than $25,000 a year, 30 percent are people of color, 9 percent claim never to have been to a live play before. So we’re developing audiences for Mixed Blood, but we believe we’re developing them for everyone.
The Mixed Blood path requires believing that there is an abundance of generosity and resources we can draw from as we carve out a new place, a new economic model, within which to practice. But as Sandel points out, economists will tell us that altruism is a scarce resource. From economist Kenneth Arrow:
I do not want to rely too heavily on substituting ethics for self-interest. I think it is best on the whole that the requirement of ethical behavior be confined to those circumstances where the price system breaks down…We do not wish to use up recklessly the scarce resources of altruistic motivation.
In other words, people behaving ethically is a rare commodity, and generosity is something not to be used up because it’s in limited supply. And don’t we feel the truth of this thinking, the way it has infiltrated our own value system in the theatre? We wonder how much can we ask for? We wonder how many times we can ask that donor or patron for money? Or how many letters of reference can I request from a professor or mentor? I worried as my father-in-law’s illness carried on and as our need for generosity increased—how much help could I ask for? And yet, my worry was unfounded. There was an abundance of generosity, if there were any limitations for understanding that abundance, it was in my own way of thinking.
What if we lead with an ethical frame? What if instead of stockpiling civic good—counter to Arrow’s suggestion—we substitute ethics for self-interest?
We must clarify the limits of the market in the theatre—what belongs to the self-interested “I” of the market and what belongs to all of us. I insist we place theatre in that realm of civic goods that belong to us all. This will require reimagining our definition of a theatre economy, and taking a moral stand when corruption of that civic good is threatened.
At HowlRound we rely on these tools and use commons-based peer production to produce content—drawing from the expertise of our users.
The Principles of a Commons
What drew us to the way we went? What was the vision, the inciting incident? Actually, there was no incident, no high drama, there was simply a change of thought, a new way of looking at things, a tilt of the head, a revolution in our perception. —Zelda Fichandler
The work ahead of us will take a tilt of the head as Zelda suggests. It will require seeing ourselves as citizens of the theatre, not simply theatre practitioners looking for our next gig.
There is a movement of commons based practice that is spreading around the world. David Bollier in his book, Think Like a Commoner says:
Commons persist and grow because a defined group of people develop their own distinctive social practices and bodies of knowledge for managing a resource. Each commons is special because each has evolved in relationship to a specific resource, landscape, local history and set of traditions.
How will we manage the vast resource of the theatre…honoring its history and traditions as a public art form?
We start from the idea that resources are abundant rather than scarce—and we seek to democratize access to those resources.
How is this possible?
Michael Rohd talks eloquently about the resources artists have to offer in his essay, “The New Work of Building Civic Practice.” The artist toolbox includes:
The ability to design and lead a process where collaborative activity leads to decision-making and shared investment; The ability to conceptualize and execute a public event on a specific timeline; The ability to synthesize complex content into meaning that can be articulated and understood; The ability to problem-solve; The ability to turn diverse stakeholders with varied self interests into coalitions.
At HowlRound we rely on these tools and use commons-based peer production to produce content—drawing from the expertise of our users. Peer production relies on our community to co-create our content with us. Let me walk you through what I’m talking about:
We typically think of artmaking as a curatorial process—a weeding out, a process of picking the art and artists who represent our personal version of the best. Now, what if instead we carve out spaces where communities collaborate instead of compete? What if our primary work requires radical listening to the interests of our community and a willingness to say “yes” to their ideas, instead of working overtime to figure out who we exclude? This is how HowlRound practices being in the world.
And so the tools of HowlRound—a journal, a livestreaming television channel, an interactive data map, in-person convenings—these tools are your tools. Peer production requires that you make the tools we steward meaningful.
At HowlRound we’ve seen an enormous interest in this idea of commons based practice in the theatre. Thirty thousand people access our tools each month in various ways. They email us to curate weeks of writing on our journal—they instigate the conversations they want to have and foster dialogue around issues that matter to them. Students around the country create watch parties to witness events livestreamed on HowlRound TV. As a result of HowlRound TV, if you live in North Dakota and want to know what’s happening at this year’s Humana Festival in Louisville, but can’t afford to fly there, you can watch all of the panel conversations with the artists at the festival via livestream. And if you’re an artist who feels on the outside, you can propose a way of putting yourself on the inside using the tools HowlRound has that we have made accessible to the commons. So, for example, a couple of years ago a playwright named Karen Zacarias came to HowlRound and said we as Latino/a theatremakers have no place to gather, no place to talk about barriers facing Latina/o artists. She asked if we would bring together a small group of Latina/o theatremakers to talk about these issues. That was two years ago. We said yes, we spent two days in a room talking and that group mobilized an entire movement that now goes under the name Latina/o Theatre Commons. In October of last year as a result of that first meeting, the largest gathering of Latina/o theatremakers since 1986 gathered in Boston to plan a movement. They didn’t start with money. They started with people and the resources that each person brought to the table. That movement has now raised some money but continues to mobilize based on the commons that the group has created. They will have two more large gatherings, they now have a full-time commons producer, and new ideas are generated daily for how to continue making room for their voice at the table of the American theatre.
I saw this same peer production process in action in my father-in-law’s death—we all brought resources to the care team. We didn’t rely solely on the expertise of doctors and healthcare providers to care for my father-in-law. We augmented the medical marketplace with our own family marketplace—with grocery shopping, insurance company maneuvering, installation of grab bars. We worked together with healthcare providers. Both economies mattered.
Head tilts come hard. They require and openness and generosity to realities that we hadn’t imagined before.
And now let me tell you a little about my father-in-law, Frank. He was the consummate “good man.” He died at age 87. When I met him he was 71, a first generation Italian living in St. Louis. A Republican, a devotee of Fox News. What could we possibly have in common? I’m a strangely gendered, gay, liberal. But Frank taught me something very early on—generosity can be a common and powerful frame from which to operate. He offered that generosity through regular birthday cards and Easter chocolate, through a reasoned argument about politics. I was included in every gift given to my spouse Lynette. He gave me one of the great compliments I’ve received anywhere. At about age 82 one day he started going on about my tattoos. He said, “those aren’t just tattoos, those are works of art.” This from an old conservative Italian guy! And when Lynette and I went to see him in the hospital in the last couple of months, he introduced me to every nurse and aide as Lynette’s spouse. In the middle of conservative St. Charles, Missouri! Frank insisted I be acknowledged properly as he retold the tale of our recent wedding to anyone who would listen.
My relationship with Frank was revelatory. My work at HowlRound has been equally so. In giving up my preconceived notion of older conservative Italian men, I added a true father to my life. In giving up my preconceived notion of the theatre, I’ve found a new world within which to make art. It’s one filled with possibilities and one that requires generosity.