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Artists, Institutions, and the Decline of Public Discourse

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Last spring I was asked to lead a panel that would foster a conversation between artists and institutions to address ways to bridge what has become an ongoing and growing divide between them. This all seemed pretty straightforward, and by no means some progressive or cutting-edge agenda. One minute before the panel was to begin, an arts administrator from a large regional theatre approached me threatening to close down the conversation. I was so stunned that I could hardly figure out what he was saying, but it went something like, “You’re fueling a divide here and it’s insulting to arts administrators and I can’t sanction this conversation.” I felt bullied and shaken by this confrontation, but because we’re living in America under the rule of a democracy, I decided to go on with the panel conversation anyway.

Recently my colleague David Dower found himself in an imbroglio about script submissions via the New Play Institute’s blog. I can’t bear to rehash that argument here because it left me feeling so beleaguered, but the disturbing part came in watching the response from artists who see themselves as outsiders to a perceived abundance of institutional theatre. What became clear was that the emotional content of the argument wasn’t really about David’s actual words on Arena’s submission policy but was really rooted in a lack of confidence in Arena’s ability to tell the truth. As one respondent put it, Arena is part of the 1 percent and these artists are in the 99 percent and never the twain shall meet. In a joking exchange on Twitter, #occupyarena was actually floated.

Arts administrators don’t want to be bothered talking about how artists feel disenfranchised anymore because they find the conversation both insulting and passé, and artists don’t believe what arts administrators have to say so why should an arts administrator bother to engage in the first place. 


a man looking at the camera
P. Carl. Photo by Mike Ritter. 

My two disturbing moments taken together, in what I will admit is a bleak interpretation, amounted to something like: arts administrators don’t want to be bothered talking about how artists feel disenfranchised anymore because they find the conversation both insulting and passé, and artists don’t believe what arts administrators have to say so why should an arts administrator bother to engage in the first place. All I can think is we’re mimicking congressional politics. We’re all happily ensconced in our immovable worldviews and we’re willing to manipulate whatever the other side says to prop up our own vantage point. This form of public discourse is straight out of certain disreputable news rooms most of us complain about. Our own discourse is no more fact-based, careful, or informed. As artists and institutions, we are actively participating in the decline of public discourse taking over our nation. And frankly, I think we should stop it. But it’s no surprise we find ourselves here. Diane Ragsdale on her Jumper blog recently wrote a post responding to last week’s “shocking” report Fusing Arts, Culture, and Social Change: High Impact Strategies for Philanthropy. She argues that the report is hardly shocking:

I by no means want to suggest that it is a waste of time to periodically document the fact that private funding for the arts continues to primarily support upper middle class white people. This is, perhaps, a message that needs to be transmitted continually if the situation is to change. And, as the report accurately suggests, this issue is becoming more acute as arts funding fails to keep pace with dramatic socio-economic changes that are occurring.

Ragsdale points out that an almost identical report was published in 1983. We went about business as usual for almost thirty years and then published this report that says essentially the same thing. The first report didn’t have much impact, why would we think this one will? But what I want to focus on in Ragsdale’s comments is the notion that things are becoming more “acute" in the battle over resources and funding.

In the midst of dramatic socio-economic changes the fear we all feel about our precarious place in the world impedes engaging in honest and respectful public discourse. Our fragile emotional state makes true dialogue almost impossible. In both of my opening examples, what I can see most clearly is that our interactions are driven by irrational fears and a profound distrust. In this irrational and, might I say, dramatic moment, the Haves in our field seek to run from all of this Internet transparency because for all their abundance they fear they have everything to lose. They become obsessed with protecting their riches. And it’s no surprise that the only class that has gained anything from our limping along economic “recovery” are those that we blame for causing this mess in the first place. They are stockpiling their portfolios.

In the meantime… The Have Nots are embracing all this transparency, blogging, and tweeting, and exposing the shady behavior of the Haves because they feel they have nothing to lose. The hope is all this transparency will lead to the fall/death of the Haves. The example most often cited (I’ve used it myself) is the power of Internet transparency as evidenced in Egypt and the end of the Mubarek dictatorship led by a Facebook/Twitter revolution.

And in what feels like an unbridgeable divide, all Haves seem smug and all Have Nots seem whiny. But the question we have to ask ourselves is are we planning to fight each other to the death? Or perhaps because we are living inside of a democracy, (albeit barely functioning) the Egypt analogy isn’t quite apt, and we need to consider a solution other than a complete overthrow of existing institutions. We need a solution that acknowledges the interdependent nature of artists and institutions.

And in what feels like an unbridgeable divide, all Haves seem smug and all Have Nots seem whiny. But the question we have to ask ourselves is are we planning to fight each other to the death?


An Interlude
Depending on your vantage point your opinions will differ on where my voice fits in this, but I must stop and consider it because how you ingest this intervention into the conversation will inevitably be influenced from where you sit and from where you think I sit via where you sit. If you’re an artist reading an online journal like HowlRound on a break from your unrelated-to-theatre day job, it’s likely that you’ll see me as a Have. And you’re completely right in this assessment. I’m now in my second job with a multi-million-dollar theatre. I am well compensated for my work and I have merged my day job with my artistic aspirations (sort of, anyway). I also have access to resources to make theatre in the various ways I define that.

If you’re perhaps not reading HowlRound because you’re in charge of a multi-million dollar theatre and have little time for the transparency of the blogosphere, you’ll probably perceive me as a whiny Have Not. You’ll be annoyed to see me harping again on the issues of disparity in our field and find my critique of the regional theatre movement as overly corporate and in an ethically compromised state as simply naïve.

But Either Way
I could go on at length about where I perceive myself on this spectrum. I’ll only say the thought that I’d be perceived in the 1 percent of anything except maybe in the 1 percent of people with exceptional tattoos is shocking to me. But either way I have some suggestions for both sides of the artist/institution divide.

To the Haves:



  1. Write your ethics statement today. I’ve said this before in this journal but I’m going to say it again—this business of not-for-profit theatre requires something different in the approach than what the corporate sector has to offer us. We chose this line of business—the particularity of the not-for-profit venue—because we believe our work transcends mere commerce. We believe we’re offering some value to the communities we serve. It’s time we define that value in the form of an ethics statement that addresses issues of salary disparity, diversity, ticket pricing, subsidiary rights, and enhancement money.
  2. Be certain when you’ve completed your ethics statement that you’ve properly categorized yourself as a not-for-profit. You might in fact be a commercial operation parading as a not-for-profit. And that’s okay. Just own it and embrace your organization’s truth.
  3. Become obsessed with ways to bring more theatre artists into your institution. Build partnerships with local companies, give your space away when it’s empty (yes, I know that’s really hard to do, but find a way dammit), and give away tickets to your artistic community when seats are empty. Concretely assess how much money you put back in artists pockets with a particular eye to how you support local artists because that was the point of building theatres across regions! The regional theatre movement started because the Ford Foundation among others sought to create the circumstances for artists’ lives to be sustained in communities across the country.
  4. Keep a sense of humor. Don’t threaten to close down conversations. Don’t squash what frightens you. Generously embrace the artist/institution divide and be a positive force in helping our field to navigate our way through these tensions. Navigate with levity and grace.

To the Have Nots:

  1. Get way clearer about who the enemy is. Do your homework. Where are truly egregious things happening? Where are resources being wasted? What are the problems in this business that need our full attention? Let’s focus.
  2. Think of every blog post or comment on someone else’s blog as a privilege. We are pioneers in a remarkable moment in history where what we think and believe can be known to a broader audience in seconds. We have a platform for participation that is entirely new and one that has the capacity to launch our voice and our creativity out into the universe with impact. More than at any other time in our history it might be fair to say that more individuals than ever before have the ability to change the world but in this new world order every word we post matters.
  3. Admit right now that all institutions aren’t bad. Assess which institutions matter to you, which ones you want to be a part of and which ones you never need to think about again. For the institutions you decide you care about: actively seek ways to make them better.
  4. Keep a sense of humor. Don’t throw stones from behind your computer and carelessly judge institutions and their people as your nemesis. Generously embrace the artist/institution divide and be a positive force in supporting fellow artists to make their way through these tensions. Navigate with levity and grace.

We have our work cut out for us. We’re in a strange time where regardless of our vantage point, we see the enemy everywhere. Recently a YouTube video made the rounds on Facebook and Twitter. In the video, Judith Butler, a well-known academic theorist is addressing the #occupywallstreet crowd. She is reading her remarks from an iPhone. The comments about the video have little to do with what she is saying but are more focused on the “evil” device in her hand, “She holds big business in her hand and condemns it with her mouth…total hypocrisy.”

But is Judith Butler really the enemy? Her committed scholarship over many years has contributed to broadening and deepening our conversations about gender and sexuality. We’re not listening to each other. We’re weighing in with a fat accusatory thumb on the scale of judgment. We’re jumping to conclusions, overreacting to untested assumptions, and not giving anybody the benefit of the doubt, let alone common courtesy and respect for a difference of opinion. But if we’re as creative as we say we are, let’s harness every last creative drop in our blood and imagine a new public discourse. Let’s show our colleagues in other disciplines and our political leaders what the embodied and live nature of theatre has to offer the world.

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Polly, I appreciate your efforts to promote discourse, it is risky to be a leader, to voice an opinion. I think it's crucial for each of us to examine the power we hold in different contexts--who we are when we feel powerless, who and how we are when we feel powerful. Not simply in the realm of theater, or a rehearsal room, but on the street, on the subway--what is our relative power to the people around us and how do we own it--by virtue of identity, class, education, sexuality, appearance, by our physical, mental and spiritual health etc.. In other words, power is not monolithic and if we are to engage in dialogue it is necessary to see the person or people who stand before us and really acknowledge that we hold relative power to each other, that it can even switch back and forth. In some cases, a playwright is viewed as the expert of the world of her play--the director and actors are gingerly exploring, not stepping on toes. In some cases, the director and actors are running roughshod over the material, making their own sense of it and bringing their interpretations. And then the balance may shift again. I am constantly aware of the shifting dynamics of power in the environments in which I move--when I teach I have a certain amount of power, when I ride the subway I have a certain amount of power--it's all contingent upon what's happening in the moment, where I am in connection to myself and where I am in connection to others. I think it's crucial that we acknowledge that we are all in possession of power--even if it's the power of knowing our experience, our identity, and being able to express it. It is difficult to engage in dialogue, it is difficult not to blame, not to retreat, and to have the opportunity to say what we mean when we feel backed into a corner or like we are invisible. Keep talking. Keep listening. Keep making mistakes. Rest when needed. Seek community. Stand back up again and talk some more. Listen some more. Rinse and repeat. Add snacks.

Pardon my ramble but Polly's note struck a few chords that have been on my mind recently. First, I never expect artists to stop "whining": it's their job. It is the sense of a need that must be addressed that fuels art; much as the irritation produces the pearl. If they ever stop "whining" we are in deep, deep trouble as a society and they will be in deep, deep trouble as artists.

Second, institutions serve different needs and constituencies. The fact that they exist means that they are meeting the needs of a constituency. Some of the institutions exist to serve artists, but many exist to serve communities or audiences. Presumably, they are working very hard to try to do this in order to keep their jobs and doing what they love.

The real villain here is not institutions, but lack of enough resources to go around, and that is an issue that is mostly beyond control of artists or arts institutions.

When they pie isn't big enough, many go hungry.

In a very interesting TedX talk by Simon Senek:


He talks about the law of diminishing innovation (or something like that), which says that of the population: 2.5% are innovators, 13.5% are early adopters, 34% are early majority, 34% are late majority and 16% have to be dragged kicking and screaming to any new technology or product. I think theatre is the same way.

The majority of the audience is not going to want to see cutting edge work, so perhaps we shouldn't expect institutions that exist to serve the (68%) majority to be primarily concerned with cutting edge work.

The good news is that there is 16% out there that is willing to take the chance. Perhaps this is the second or third stage at major institutions or the little theatre company around the corner.

Of course many artists are driven by the need to push the envelope, which is great, each artist should do what they are compelled to do. But if you are an artist that pushes the envelope, it is unrealistic to expect to be embraced by the majority or by institutions which are designed to serve the majority.

America's financial environment is not friendly to non-commercial art, Period. That isn't the fault of the artists and it isn't the fault of institutions that try to present art to the public.

While I too wish that many of the theatres made bolder choices (or at least differentiated more), I trust that most of the leaders are doing what they think best to serve their audiences and, after ensuring the survival of the institution, still support artists as much as they cancan.

The artists will never stop whining, thankfully. But perhaps, rather than whining quite as much that their provocative work is not placed before the "majority audience," they can find a way to create something that can move that majority audience slightly in another direction. And this is only done if the majority audience is willing to be moved.

There are a number of really talented artists out there whose work, while smart, talented and unique, alienates the very audience it hopes to convert. I posit that Harold Clurman had it right: "The truth is like Castor Oil. It's good for people, but they don't want it. So you have to make them laugh, and while their mouths are open, you pour it in."

If the artists want to reach that 68%, they are likely going to have to make art that the 68% wants to see.

At the same time, the institutions whose missions claim to move the art forward are going to have to take some risk with their audiences in order to do that.

I've been wondering what non-commercial theater is. It seems to me a lot of the non-commercial theater I see could easily have long commercial runs if we stopped calling it non-commercial. Is Richard Forman all that different than Alexander McQueen (in terms of their mainstream sensibility). Yet the former has short off-off Broadway runs and the later has the largest selling show in MOMA's history. It seems to me the general population is game but, in terms of theater, they keep being told they shouldn't be. Although my post is more directed at parts of Peter's post (rather than Polly's article) it seems one way to smooth the dispute between the Haves and Have-nots is to let go of some of our not-for-profit/commercial theater barriers.

I really found a great deal of this valuable, both in the manner by which ideas were presented (frank, clear, no BS) and in the specific suggestions made to both camps. But I am always left with the same feeling after reading online essays along these themes -- I feel like the whole discussion needs to be shifted up a few gears -- as if we are on a country drive trying to get up a hill in an old car, and instead of shifting into a different gear to get up that hill we keep in the same gear and lose momentum. Both the "Haves" and "Have-Nots" are living within a constrained system of funding, a system that is not what was initially intended by our political and cultural leaders in the 1950s/1960s. Both the "Haves" and "Have-Nots" are collectively screwed. Both camps are in precarious positions. The answer to many of Ms. Obolensky's questions could be answered by one thing -- increased public funding for the arts. Both arts institutions and individual artists are living within a dome, one that is ever-contracting -- hence the fear Aaron expresses in moments before actually posting, or the "punitive apparatus" Ms. Schulman references, or the "fear" Lydia describes. I just feel as if the needle within the geiger counter of this conversation (and others) needs to be shifted a bit higher up and broader to ask some basic questions like -- Why are we living within this current arts funding structure? Who fashioned it and why? Who has changed it and why? Who maintains it and why? Why are we living within this presenting arts structure and why? I'm always in favor of more interrogation along these lines. Its not a very well-covered area. Finally, Jane's comment is pretty amazing and dead on.

I really like this one too, Polly Carl. I think your point that it's vital that the "haves" and "have-nots" continue to communicate with each other--even despite the seductive comfort of retiring to our own communities to complain amongst ourselves--is a vital one.

I think there's an analogy here to national politics--another arena in which we face the dilemma of whether it's more productive to work within the system or to agitate from the outside. In both spheres, I think the answer is that we have to do both. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a great column about Obama's antagonism against "professional left", using Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln to illustrate the vital role of outspoken loyal oppositions in helping politicians achieve their policy goals. (http://www.nytimes.com/2011... --I love this descriptive phrase: "a coalition of unhandy devils.")

Institutions are made stronger by their "coalition of unhandy devils": held accountable to their mission statements, their artists, and their communities, forced to keep evolving with an ever-changing culture instead of relaxing into the ease of the status quo. But this healthy exchange can't take place if we block out voices of dissent...institutions have to open themselves up and listen to voices outside or they will become intellectually and creatively sterile. And, honestly, there are already too many zombie theaters out there.

But it takes two to tango. And it's tricky for me to talk about the other side, coming from an institutional perspective, so I'll talk about it from my personal experience. I've worked at institutions where I haven't agreed with decisions that are being made, and it's really tempting to throw my hands in the air and to bitch privately about those decisions with like-minded colleagues, assuming we have no power to change them. I'll admit that I've done that from time to time, but I'm really, really trying not to anymore. It's a lot easier to complain about not having power than to exercise the power that we do have (it's a critique that Tony Kushner makes about liberals, and I think he's right). If the institutions really are the soulless monoliths that they're sometimes portrayed as, well that absolves us of the responsibility of trying to change them. But that's a tool lost to all of us: infrastructure makes it easier to get things done.

I think honest, open conversation is hard on both sides. We're deep-feeling people--we people of the theater--and making ourselves vulnerable means it's easy to get hurt. (Or maybe I'm projecting...) So I think we've got to use the strength of our form and ground the conversations in empathetic imagination. I think, on both sides, if we look for ourselves in the other instead of setting up straw men, we can actually work to understand and address the difficult, complex issues in our community.

This is such a helpful take on what I'm trying to say. I really loved the Coates piece so thanks for that link. The idea that in some ways we're always an aggregation the work of a "coalition of unhandy devils" whether we're staring into an iPhone or wearing some article of clothing made in a sweat shop or...

It's hard to find the origins of corruption or truth and hence why I worry about all the desire to set up straw men..

Empathetic imagination is a beautiful term that I will have to steal--or maybe you can write a HowlRound piece on that idea?

This is an interesting issue... I appreciated the phrase "artists who see themselves as outsiders to a perceived abundance of institutional theater." Take out the word "theater" and you can easily put in "visual arts", "dance", or "performance art."

I appreciated your good guidance to both sides, and I think we shouldn't ignore that there are some authentic differences in what each side wants. Institutions want to protect their jobs; that is why they get paid, and why their staff are deserving of a salary, and that's really a little different than the needs of the independent playwright. I agree funders play a critical role and wrote about this a bit ago off of something Claudia La Rocco wrote: http://robbettmann.com/citi...

I’m relieved, Polly, that you’ve so passionately articulated the association with the political transformations going on around us that many of us have been feeling. (And I don’t think the concept of occupying a theatre should be taken lightly!)

But the discourse you ask for can only take place outside of fear and power disparity. That’s why revolutions are necessary. It’s true, as you say, that artists are starting to realize they have nothing to lose. And most positively, are coming together, instead of falling into the trap of seeing each other only as competitors (a great Capitalist strategy). But the administrators have ‘everything’ to lose, as you suggest—the sharing of wealth and privilege and decision-making power and will resist change. And I know they live in fear—of their board members, etc.. As do all despots. We’re all living in a state of fear. We are afraid of them because we are dependent on them and have been powerless. How unhealthy. How deadly for art. So how can we encourage theater leadership to begin a new kind of relationship with artists or to think anew about the nature of the art form and its potential to ‘offer the world something,’ as you so beautifully put it?

I don’t think any of us know what that revolution will/could lead to, and there is beauty in that. But we all need to be involved in the remaking of the theatre. And as a first step, demands must be made, as you suggest, on the honesty and humanity and accountability of those who lead theatres. Respect must be paid. Please don’t ask artists to try to understand the complexities of the position of those with power. We hear from them all the time about that. It’s no longer acceptable to expect us to accept things as they are.

My own ‘positive thinking’ experiments, by the way, with trying to engage institutions (stepping beyond fear, but respectfully) in dialogue have for the most part failed. The responses did not feel honest. Or there was no answer. Which is an answer. Playwrights have been made to feel like intruders. Of the many things I have done in my life, nothing has reduced me to such a feeling of worthlessness as my varied attempts at ‘discourse’ with theatre institutions. The noble exceptions—and there are some-- confirm the rule.

I would like to imagine this gigantic shift in consciousness across the planet, as you do, as a moment of potential transformation of the theatre, but remain sceptical. If the 99 percent can topple brutal regimes across the planet, what is stopping us?

All best!

Lydia Stryk

Yeah, I think theaters who don't engage in conversation can't ask for sympathy. And I think this culture is slowly but surely changing--and we've got to keep the pressure on.

That said, I think that it's natural to focus on how institutions are not open to conversation. But I think artists need to help create a culture where they are not punished for doing so. I feel like I've been really burned a couple of times in the past when I've tried to engage artists in conversattion about my theater's choices. I've heard things I've said twisted into some bizarre creation that sounded impressively nefarious that bore no resemblance to anything I would do or say, and then reported as evidence of how awful institutions are. If you look at the comments and internet scuttlebutt around this submissions controversy, there are examples of that same phenomenon (although, to be fair, in this extreme form, this is certainly the exception not the rule).

Polly, I spent a lot of time thinking about my responses to your piece. Truth tends to hide in distinction. It's hard to talk of "artists" because four artists could all say the same words of criticism and yet each one's context would produce entirely different meaning. Playwrights are treated differently by institutional theaters based on their 1) point of view and values 2) Content: who their characters are and what experiences they represent 3) their branding: school brand, family legacy, connection to money and power. While many lower-level people inside the theaters know this, most of those in the true power positions are not self-aware (in standard, almost cookie-cutter ways) that culturally dominant people don't have to see the apparatus of their privilege. As a result what is called "quality" is often just familiarity and what is called "taste" is actually politics. This creates a profoundly censorious theater based on active harassment of talented people by shunning, demeaning and dismissing them - trying to force an attrition of perspective. Despite receiving government funding, there is no system of accountability. Critics certainly do not look at the manufactured consent issue and most people in the theater community are terrified of expressing any substantial ideas because of how punitive the apparatus is towards dissent. So you end up with the endless repetition of the centrality of the while male (gay and straight) in almost every play, whether the protagonist is he himself, or an unreal female standing in for his projections. This centrality is even present in other people's work, where black writers who demean black males and let white people off the hook, lesbian writers with bi-sexual or deflected protagonists, and straight women who write cute, domestic and whimsical are elevated. All are allowed to thrive in performance art forms as long as the blue ribbon form of the mutli-character play with gravitas is reserved for white males. That theaters won't engage this problem; the very problem that produces the constant bombardment of work aggrandizing the status quo of power. This is what, I think, is at the center of the conflict you describe. Even if its elements are hidden and not articulated.

I think you're addressing something here that is fundamental to the whole non-profit sector: there is a fair amount of diversity - both of opinion and demography - in the lower levels of non-profits staff; but there is a remarkable homogeneity in leadership positions. I think this is part of what lends the mainstream stage the kind of homogenous point of view you're calling out here.

Can I also just say that I had to think twice before posting this?

I wrote about this very thing in the first piece I posted on the journal. I feel the big question we refuse to really talk about in this field is aesthetics and the way in which taste is not some personal sense of what's good but rooted in dominant cultural narratives about what constitutes a compelling story.

Thanks for adding this perspective into this particular conversation.

I wonder about "Art" these days. When Roundabout puts on a new play (her second I think?) by Zoe Kazan -- why? Because she's a "famous" name. And Roundabout needs to sell tickets. They need money to produce their season. But it's kind of like the "kardashians" with little regard to quality.

These days people are looking for "entertainment" and the white upper middle class is the only people who can afford to go to the theater. The only people who get to make theater (in the Non-profit institutionalized sector) are those who've paid enormous sums (or have big student loans) for their MFAs, they've been "vetted". They're in the club. The rest are left standing outside in the cold. Unless they have some kind of "famous" connection.

Art is no longer divided from commerce because theater companies need to survive too, to continue to support all the "MFA" people who have student loans and have landed "in the club" -- but external voices have to find their own way outside of the institutions....

Thanks for the call for civic (and civil) discourse, and I think your writing, Polly, opens up the discussion to something far beyond the great divide between artists and administrators, or to the Have and Have Nots, a distinction I think that is pretty malleable and applicable to all of us, within each of our camps, at various stages in our lives and careers. We are in a period of re-formation. It’s an exciting time to think and rethink on a personal and political level about how we all function and fit into a larger world. As I think about being a playwright, I’m up for a bit of personal reinvention myself, so that I can be a collaborator, a producer, my own kind of social activist. But how does that re-formation, that re-thinking happen on a larger level? By listening to one another, most certainly, and I think by trusting the process of what it is that we do. Which is to say, that the space will be filled, if the doors are open, the narrative will be created if the people involved are passionate and curious and smart and that the reinvention will happen, over time, if there is the place and time for these people to participate, to question, to make and if there are the people in place who can practice the fine art of noticing. So I like Polly’s idea of regional theatres opening their doors to their communities; I like the idea of thinking of regional theatre not just as a nurturer of plays and writers, but as a place where re-invention and experimentation can happen even if it’s not sanctioned by the theatre as a play that will be produced on their stages. I wonder how the resources that large regional theatres command can extend to helping us begin to make the next thing? Because the next thing usually comes from the artists themselves...How can large institutions become the roots for large healthy trees in our communities and neighborhoods—with lots of strong branches, and many leaves? How can the regional theatre, the institution, nurture and support the communities and neighborhoods that exist around it? How do we begin to look towards the commons, the idea that art should be part of everyone’s life, not just a privilege for the select few who can afford to make it and attend it? If sales taxes can go towards football stadiums, can it also go towards creating neighborhood vitality through theatre and other art forms? How can each neighborhood create its own kind of voice, its own kind of performance, its own kind of narrative?

Hey Kira,
I love what you're saying here and appreciate you jumping into the conversation. I guess if I believe anything, it's that we have to get back to this idea of the commons if we work in a not-for-profit world. It's disturbing to see how so many of our theaters have become elite enterprises and we have to insist on reassessing the idea of theater as a part of our cultural commons.

I am once again reminded that Winston Churchill, with German rockets raining down on Britian, when asked how he could justify spending money to support the Arts, replied, "It's what we are fighting for."

As a mid-career artist, I have the fortune/misfortune of knowing professionals on both sides of this divide. I know talented, industrious peers who struggle in relative obscurity and manage to keep their artistry alive (somehow) while living two lives--one that pays and one that doesn't. And I have talented, committed peers who are building their work through laudable institutions, managing to keep their artistry alive (somehow) while pleasing sometimes-impossible masters: the muse, the board, the subscriber base.

The fact is, no matter where we are in our careers, we make compromises to make our work. And sometimes, we just have dumb luck to thank for our opportunities, and that's really all there is separating us from our colleagues (whether we can admit it or not).

My beef with Haves? They can't acknowledge that success changed them. Loyalties go out the window when an artist wakes up one day and realizes they have something to lose. My beef with Have Nots? They underestimate the discipline it takes to survive in an institution, day in, day out, and balance all the priorities it takes to keep the lights on and the work flowing.

Everyone starts out thinking they're going to change the world, and then the world changes them. I don't think the people running institutions meant to disown their own histories. But they have. I don't think the Have Nots meant to devolve into entitled children. But sometimes, it sure looks like they did.

My bottom line is, if you make work all the time, half the time, or a fraction of the time, whether you get paid a lot, a little, or nothing at all, you deserve to have your phone call returned. You deserve a thoughtful evaluation of your submitted proposal. You deserve simple acknowledgment and respect, because you are bothering to make a cultural contribution while everyone around you is working for the weekend and leaving the TV on for hours so they can get away from their own kids.

If we could all agree on that much, maybe we could get somewhere.

As I reflect on the inherent difficulties in relationships between artists and institutions (the perceived imbalances of power, the self-thwarting self-censorship on both sides, the fumbling courtships, the marred climaxes) I remember the night in Key West when Eric Holowacz, one of my favorite Arts Advocates with Administrative Skills, (and people), had stocked the fridge for our residency, anticipating our hunger after a two-day drive, and we literally drank wine and broke (mango) bread together underneath the stars.

Thanks, Polly, for your call to generosity and grace.

Oh, and one important pps- It won't do any good, in my opinion, to have anyone write down their ethics statements- Anyone I know who's any good at oppressing anyone is all too wonderful at writing ethics statements that cloak their wrongdoing in great lingo. Have you seen the Lutz report- on what words Republicans should and shouldn't use? Interesting reading- Assigned reading after the next class, maybe.

Dear Ms. Carl,Of course, you are among the 1 per cent. And of course, you understandably lament the decline of civil (civic) conversation. But really, to me You are the enemy- one whom I respect, even cherish, but the enemy nonetheless. You tell us Have Not to do our homework. How patronizing. I feel it is you (and I say this with great levity and grace) who have not done your homework. How can you say "Where are truly egregious things happening?" "Where are resources being wasted?" The answer is pretty much everywhere. Never mind the arts community- All across the planet egregious (to the point of murder and torture) things are happening. The air and sea are being despoiled. And almost all of this murder and destruction is delivered by corporate interests. You admit (and don't seem to know what you've admitted) that a report on the arts shows things haven't changed for 30 years. That's bad. But the macro situation is infinitely worse. The US has become increasingly fascist in its orientation- and its a fascism of consumerism. You say "the fear we all feel impedes our ability for honest civic discourse." I'm sorry, but you need to do your homework there. The Occupy Wall Street movement is built on the drive toward, the insistence on honest civic discourse. The fear we have nots feel is because our request for, insistence on, our rights to be honest civic citizens, to be Democratic, is met with police brutality and illegal repression, Funded by Corporate Interests. You make the age old mistake, in my very Respectful opinion, of equating- The Tea Party is the same as Occupy Wall Street- they're both extremist groups. Do your homework, please. Look at the Occupy movements across this country. If you only have time for one, consider Oakland. Consider the major there, and her response (if it can be called that) to what's going on. Most of us in the Have Not category Know that it is not even the 1 per cent who is the enemy. it is the 1 per cent of the one per cent. Unfortunately for all of us- that 1 per cent is running the country. Do you not know this? How can you expect citizens kicked out of their homes, their savings, their jobs, to speak civilly (and yet the Vast majority of them still are) in a country where the Language itself has been contaminated by the supreme judicial entity in the land. In a country where the Supreme Court assures us that corporations are people, in the same time period where corporations for rewarded for their malfeasance and We the taxpayers must bail them out... How do you expect civil or civic discourse when most of the major news networks are not news networks at all but propaganda machines. The point here is- It is not Easy for people to do their homework when it is so hard to learn the truth. Where is something egregious happening? At all the top levels of our country (and there are other countries yes still worse). You mention rightly that we have this great platform for participation- Yes. Check it out. Check out the Occupy sites. Check out the discussions, the debates, the petitions, the passions. I would set as your required reading The Death of the Middle Class, by Chris Hedges. Or hear him interviewed on Wall Street. To me, when you ask for civil discourse and talk about what we all feel, you miss the key point of this epoch. There are those who do not wish the arts well. They do not wish people well. They want power and they have it. They have gotten richer and richer and more and more powerful and now are acting with such impunity that the United States, for one shining moment, coming out of slavery and brutal oppression of the Native Americans, a bastion of civil liberty- now is a fascist state with no habeas corpus, where corporations can buy congressman and forge laws that endorse the destruction of the natural universe and oppress anyone they like in the name of "terrorism." We- the US- have become a bull (as in bull market) in the china shop of the world. And I, a patriot, raised on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a firm believer as you are in civil discourse, do not Like it, Sam I am not! But the first step is for Americans who are asleep to wake up, and I unfortunately can hear you (forgive me for being rude) snoring. I thank you for your time and attention. I would be happy to read whatever you would like to assign me as homework. Let us, you and I, engage in civil dispute, disagreement, discourse. And let us Both do our homework. Respectfully submitted, Lyn Coffin

It is so important for people to see each other's work: I think that creates a sense of community as much as actually working together. I wonder if big institutions should make sure that someone from the castle is aware of the work being done in their community? Is that too much of a burden? Or is it essential to the process of being a big institution? How else can local artists grow and stretch, if not by being noticed and invited to play in a larger arena - though it is condescending in the worst way to imply that bigger is always better.

Knowing that a mind like yours is running around inside the Flagship is a nice, fizzy feeling for this local.


Huzzah! In a moment of high emotions...breathing and listening are essential tools for real progress (and real art).Thank you for this!KZ