The Value of Rhythms
I live between two rhythms.
One rhythm comes from my professional life. I have worked almost my entire life in the context of institutions, large and small and I have been beholden by their sense of time, and process—anticipation driven by a clock and federal holidays. At the surface, these rhythms are easy to see. They include:
- Workdays of at least eight (8) hours, 9 A.M. to 5 P.M., with sixty hours being a normal work-week. More work hours will be required as the work dictates.
- All time off to be requested in advance, with the exception of sick leave.
- Since sick leave cannot be scheduled in advance, don’t get sick.
- Attend all scheduled meetings all day and several unscheduled meetings as needed.
- Vacation and sick hours not to exceed the allotted time allowed for vacation and sick hours, but better not think of taking more than a few days off at a time.
- When it gets busy, kiss your vacation time goodbye.
- Conduct and submit to annual performance evaluations.
- Purchase a cake for employees on their birthdays. Be prepared to sing.
But in my personal life, I often fall outside of institutional rhythms and rules. My inability to conform to the institutions of gender and sexuality has made a mess of the rhythms we call rites of passage, such as:
- Picking out a wedding dress.
- Planning a wedding.
- Having children.
- Celebrating holidays with “in-laws.”
- Filling out forms to affirm my identity.
This is all a long way of saying that I have a love/hate relationship with institutions. They function as a salve of security if you’re inside them, and they keep you peering through their big glass windows contemplating whether it’s worth trying to get in if they deem you “other” and unworthy.
They function as a salve of security if you’re inside them, and they keep you peering through their big glass windows contemplating whether it’s worth trying to get in if they deem you “other” and unworthy.
Rhythms of Artists Versus Rhythms of Institutions
In my experience those folks we label “individual artists” have about as much in common with the rhythms of large producing institutions as I have in common with the institution of marriage. And I'm aware of two trends in our field right now that pertain to these two contentious terms—"individual artist" and "institution."
1. It seems that leaders of some large institutions don’t want us to talk aloud about the relationship between the two and certainly don’t want us to draw distinctions. We all need to just support the larger idea of theatre and not tarry over who makes more money.
2. The dialogue between the two entities is heating up like never before—just check out Diane Ragsdale’s Jumper blog. My guess is these things are related—efforts to silence tend to lead to a Freudian repression—the silence becomes unspoken excess that starts to ooze out in various forms of neuroses all over the place. I feel covered in ooze.
In a helpful exchange about all of this, my former boss Martha Lavey, artistic director of Steppenwolf Theatre, provided me with the term rhythm. Institutions are framed in the kinds of business rhythms I list above, and artists, at least the ones I know, have to keep one full foot if not both feet outside of institutional rhythms to imagine things that have yet to be framed. As Lewis Hyde says,
For the slow labor of realizing a potential gift the artist must retreat to the Bohemias, halfway between 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.
Most of us who work in theatre believe that there’s something “other worldly” about the work of the artist. If you read and enjoyed Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, in junior high the way I did, you can’t help but value greatly the truth that the artist must retreat to the Bohemias, so that there is time to imagine new worlds, new ways of seeing and believing.
But exactly what do the Bohemias have in common with institutional rhythms?
A conversation I've had many times with an individual artist:
Carl: In exchange for this fellowship I'm going to offer you I need you to make several commitments to my institution. These include: attending a donor event, coming to staff meetings this year, reading scripts for the next round of fellowships, and oh—please respond to my emails when I send them.
Artist: Yes! I'm so excited to do all of these things. Yes! Yes! Two months later an email exchange:
Carl: Hey!!!!!! Yo!!!!!!! I miss you. Where are you? Are you still working on that show in Antarctica? I totally need you to be auctioned off at this donor event in a couple of months. We auction you off to write this play for this rich person....
Artist: Polly!!!!!!! Great to hear from you!!! I would LOVE to be auctioned off. But HUGE drag, I'm at McDowell that month. Damn! Next time count me in for sure!
Okay, a couple of things about this bogus exchange—sometimes the artist will say yes, clearly the artist and I love each other and clearly I feel let down by the artist because I have to go to that stupid fundraiser and auction off playwrights when I would rather be at McDowell. Oh, and neither of us use that many exclamation points.
The truth in this exchange is that we view our rhythms as a trade off and to some degree we both think the other's grass is greener. I desire the free time to write and think and imagine, and to say “no” to things so that I can do other more interesting things. My individual artist friends desire regular paychecks and the security that provides.
I desire the free time to write and think and imagine, and to say “no” to things so that I can do other more interesting things. My individual artist friends desire regular paychecks and the security that provides.
Even as I write this essay, I think, “So What? Artists and Institutions have different rhythms?” Saying this is no different than saying our personal and professional lives have different rhythms, and still, we find a way to reconcile these differences into a thing we call a life. Why can’t we find reconciliation between the institutions that exist in part to serve artists (also audiences and communities) and the artists who make institutions matter?
And then I have my own epiphany. It’s the weekend mind you, and I’m in my version of Bohemia—biking and walking and sitting on my deck overlooking the city of Boston and reflecting on why we divided our field up between artists and institutions in the way we have. And I realize as I’m writing this essay on rhythms that the issue isn’t really about rhythms between artists and institutions, but about rhythms between disparate kinds of institutions, some which serve artists better and live more ethically in the world.
In fact if you look at the comments section on Diane’s blog post for example, it’s really not a conversation between individual artists (I see a few represented there) and institutions, but between different institutional leaders with wildly different viewpoints about the purpose and role of institutions in our field.
And these different viewpoints are driven by completely opposing rhythms. Those perpetuating the ongoing life of a LORT theatre for example, must live by the rhythms driven by filling large numbers of seats, maintaining very high cost overheads, and convincing people that paying a lot for a ticket is worth it. These rhythms are very particular and are different from an institution whose sole purpose is to maintain a development laboratory for new work. Both institutions will claim they love artists, because they do.
But we institutional types might all benefit from more time in the Bohemias together to figure out just what we’re saying. Because what’s noteworthy in all of this for me are two things:
1. Artists aren’t in these conversations as vociferously because they need both types of institutions. They can’t take any risk in cutting themselves off from the large institutional theatres no matter how mad issues of disparity and access make them. And they desperately need those artist-centered, usually smaller institutions that accommodate their rhythms more easily.
2. Rhythms have values and hence institutions do too.
Rhythms Have Values
Recently Lynette and I were told that we have to get married. In order for her to remain on my health plan at Emerson. We have six months to tie the knot. This is both a great thing and completely weird because I have such a fraught relationship with the institution of marriage. Most of my life, I felt enraged by the heterosexual mirror and couldn’t believe so many gay people were fighting to be let into such a bankrupt institution. Then I met Lynette D’Amico and about thirteen years into our relationship, realizing I would never love another in this way, I suddenly wanted to go through that rite of passage and shout my love to all of my family and friends. I proposed. But I wasn’t expecting to then be told by an institution when it all had to happen.
So now Lynette and I are in a frenzy driven by a bunch of institutions, Emerson, the State of Massachusetts, and our extended families.
Most of my life, I felt enraged by the heterosexual mirror and couldn’t believe so many gay people were fighting to be let into such a bankrupt institution.
And we have to make some decisions about our values. The first relates to how much we value health insurance. This is a decision individual artists make everyday as they choose between their time in the Bohemias and institutional day jobs. Other value based decisions will include how accessible and transparent and inclusive our wedding will be and how much we think is too much to pay for that inclusivity.
Well, you get the point. Our choices about how we enter the institution of marriage will be value-driven and we’re both clear that our rhythms will have to change as we consider how to incorporate this new institution into our life.
And I’ve been saying for awhile now that it’s time for all of our institutions to ask the very hardest kinds of questions about our values. Do we value artistic work in our institutions for its own sake? Are we willing to pay artists to be artists whether or not they write a play that delivers box office returns to the theatre? Do we believe that artists, who spend their lives outside the demands of time clocks and performance evaluations, should be paid less a result? What values do our day-to-day rhythms promote?
It’s this question of values that we’re not pushing ourselves hard enough to consider as we move to the beat of our institutional rhythms. We don’t spend enough time away from those rhythms and the pressures they bring, to think about new institutional models that can lead to new and healthier relationships between individual artists and institutions.
And as artists, what part of your creative lives must be turned toward reimagining our institutions? When must you leave the Bohemias to give us a hand and help us create new frames and stories for our organizations?
As I contemplate joining the institution of marriage, I will consider this question of rhythms—where to hold onto existing values (I am not buying a dress!) and where to invite new values into my daily rhythms.