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Civic Theater

What do we talk about
when we examine what it means to make new theater today?

Craft. Career. Community.

These are the substance of many conversations we have
when we wrestle with what we make, how we make,
and how we make a life while making.

I propose that these conversations
often miss the most important conversation—
the one about how lives are lived outside the realm of our field,
our work,
and our audiences.

How does the work we do impact,
intersect with
and contribute to a healthy, functional democracy?

It seems to me that many of our conversations have become
either a quest to keep our institutions alive, or a salve
to the fear of economic and long-term instability for individual artists.

Those are valid, pressing concerns.
They have to be reckoned with, because livelihoods
and legacy are at stake.

But I don’t believe those conversations are going to ever be the
engine that drives the future of theater.

We need to demonstrate theater’s capacity as a set of potent practices that civic and legislative leaders (and organizations) can recognize as usable, applicable tools.

A candid photo of Michael Rohn Speaking
Michael Rohd. Photo by the Sojourn Theatre.

If I,
as an artist and a citizen,
want the best chance to be a part of that future,
I have to put the focus outside of myself
not because I want to be selfless,
but because I believe discovery and significance
comes from task, obstacle, and a sense of context.

My clearest task as a theater artist—
To be an agent of thoughtful citizenship and dynamic relationship building;

My largest obstacle—
How my field and practice is perceived by those inside and
outside of it;

My current context—
A nation of clashing ideologies,
polarized public discourse,
stark inequity around resources and capital,
and a love affair in many public and private sectors
with “innovation and creativity”
disconnected from a faith in, or a curiosity towards
the potential of artistic practice.

At the Arena New Play Convening in January, the day after
President Obama’s State of the Union Address, I asked NEA
Chair Rocco Landesman a question—

This is a President who supports the arts and culture,
but even so, the idea of linking the work of the imagination,
at the heart of art making, to creativity and innovation—
not even a passing reference.

Given the lack of value, in mainstream public discourse,
attributed to the power and potential of art and art making
as an engine for vision and discovery;

given the consistently common perception of art as a
consumable commodity rather than a distinctly vital
and healthy part of our social fabric;

what can the NEA do,
on behalf of artists and our fellow Americans
who could benefit from
our being enlisted in this Sputnik moment,
to recognize and foreground the artistic impulse,
the artistic action,
the artistic event
as not just diversionary
or even “meaningfully cultural,”
but rather as a set of muscles without which innovation
and creativity are simply knowledge and experience
waiting to catch fire.

What can the NEA do to bring the value we already offer
at tables all around the nation to our nation's head table,
and name us, artists, as resources who can be reached,
engaged and can be of tremendous service?

The Chairman’s response was to describe the cross-agency
collaborations going on at the Federal level, and to articulate
the work coming out of HUD around their Sustainable
Communities Initiative, developed in partnership with NEA
leadership. It’s good work, and is supporting artist participation
in community planning processes and vision projects.

But we need something more.
I believe it’s twofold:

1, within our own field, a greater understanding of dramaturgy
as an asset that we as theater makers bring not just to our
practice but in contexts not traditionally associated with rooms
dedicated to “creating”;

and 2,

recognition in those contexts that dramaturgy, the making of
meaning, can be useful in rooms where meaning is routinely
made but not always considered.

At Sojourn Theatre, the company I co-founded in 1999,
we speak about a “dramaturgy of event.” We articulate our
belief that theater’s expertise with story, metaphor and
structure doesn’t simply offer us tools for articulating plot
aimed at audience experience;
it offers us ways to build process and partnerships;
it offers us pedagogy for workshops to unfold in rooms of
non self-defined artists;
it offers us options for how the ensemble functions;
dramaturgy invites our conscious attention to the utility
of our organizational tools (how we organize intent,
imaginative action and expressive acts towards a shared goal)
when approaching a challenge whether it's in rehearsal,
in community, or in the space that constantly arises at the
intersection of the two.

The practice of democracy includes building coalitions,
articulating core values, examining sticking places and
shared values in multi-ideological dialogues, listening,
synthesizing and seeking common ground and potentially
shared legislative agendas.

This practice is the collaborative,
imaginative making of meaning.

This practice is in desperate need of dramaturgy.

The theater I’m describing is happening already.
The practice is evolving all over the nation as artists,
communities and leaders find themselves crafting
new approaches to longstanding dilemmas.

We need to demonstrate theater’s capacity as a set of potent
practices that civic and legislative leaders (and organizations)
can recognize as usable, applicable tools.


*By establishing a useful set of frames and vocabulary for the
theater, performance and cross-disciplinary sectors to aid in
productive, cumulative field-wide dialogue about this work.

*By re-framing the national conversation around
“the value of art”;
*By placing theater firmly in a set of useful practices
that civic and legislative leaders (and organizations)
recognize as potent, applicable tools;
*By creating a readable, organized, and responsive online
view of what I'll call here “Civic Theater” in the US;
*By making clear paths for young artists looking to engage in
meaningful work at the intersection of performance and democracy;
*By connecting academic and research settings to the field of
professional practice via a curated and intentional exchange of
opportunities and learnings.

The conversation surrounding this work can be complicated in
our field. Aaron Landsman (a NYC- based artist with whom I
was discussing this) and I recently had a brief exchange on
email in reference to his newest work, City Council Meeting

I'm hearing other peoples' framing for my piece—sometimes it
seems like they are missing something or focused intently on one
aspect, which, because of who I'm more commonly in contact
with, tends to be the formal aspect.

I think that really happens—
You know, we make meaning not out of what someone else
intends us to hear and see,
but through our own perceptions
and our own perceptions are totally ruled by the models
that already make sense to us.
So, to ask people to engage with and discuss our
work in the ways we want it contextualized,
we need to assert clear models which
give folks access to those contexts and therefore our intent.

Without an understanding of context and intent,
manifesting what we can newly imagine into the world
becomes next to impossible.

An idea cannot generate traction if it can’t be understood
on its own terms.

Artistic practice offers an invaluable asset to a nation when
collaborative civic imagination is desperately needed.

Theater, a practice that demands a much-needed spirit of play
to succeed, offers time and place based tools to create space
for encounter, dialogue, analysis and reflection.

So as a field,
or as a small corner of a very large field,
let’s make the offer.

Let us articulate what is powerful about our work now in ways
that can escape, post this particular moment, the twin death
knells of ideology and partisanship.

Let us build a public perception scaffolding that will allow not
just relationships and specific funding initiatives to survive,
but will offer our work up as a recognized asset in civic innovation.

Let us bring dramaturgy, and the utility of theater practice, into civic and legislative spaces where dialogues are had and decisions are made.

Let’s reach out—
to every legislator in the nation
to every civic leader
to every university provost
to every foundation board head
to every conference like Grantmakers in the Arts
and Faith Leaders in the Midwest
and the Conference of US mayors
and lets howl the message
that artistic practice
when engaged in conceptual collaborative thinking at local levels
can be useful
can be a specific tool for dialogue, for problem-solving, and for

What do we talk about
when we examine what it means to make new theater today?


I want to talk about the Civic—
not just in how it serves our field, but how we serve it.
How we engage it.

Lets talk about new theater today
with a passion, with a belief
not just in the written word,
in the live event
in the actor meeting the audience,
but passionately invested in our own potential
to be meaningful partners in building a healthy society.

Still to come in August and September:

Part 2

Defining a social society, a cognitive age, and how new
research is paving the way to look at art as not just
enlightening but absolutely necessary for a democracy
to make policy that works.

Part 3

What I have founded, and am now building—
The Center for Performance, Public Practice
& Civic Innovation;
its focus on Plays, Projects, Research and Labs;
and how supporting development,
and dissemination
of new models and existing best practice
is crucial at this moment.


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The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

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Michael, this post gives me some hope for the artist in me. I am of a confused upbringing where my teenage years in highschool defined "art" as painting and theater and ultimately nothing more useful than entertainment. While i do acknowledge the ability pieces have to entertain i believe art can convey many different masks and shapes.

I am a Double major in History and Peace/Conflict Studies with a concentration in Pre-law. As a future lawyer with a background in the arts it excites me to see a suggestion for the culture surrounding art to redefine what it is and what it can do. Art is no longer entertainment in the school in which i went to high school over the years it has evolved into a realm for critical reasoning and socio-cultural understanding. In this realm i believe we will nurture generation of youth who need 'civic theater' in order to express their needs.

This brings me to my point, I question and dissent against Bruce's notion that this is, 'the most radically inefficient and indirect means to achieve your goal' If your goal is to contribute to a healthy functioning democracy then you are creating and area for what a healthy democracy needs. A stage for citizens to inform, provide input, and gain a voice. A democracy over the voiceless is a tyranny of those with the ability to howl and spread their voice. You sir are creating a stage for these under-voiced actors (in both the theatrical and non theatrical sense) and communities to raise voice in a way that is not only entertainment, not only critically analyzable, but engaging on a level of civics.

I love this piece, Michael, and am delighted to be working in a time and place where you are working this stuff out. What's always been clear to me is that the theater is a big tent, and any attempts to actually draw boundaries around what it should be, or what it isn't, are futile-- it will pop up where and how its makers want it to. So there's plenty of room for Bruce's work and for Erik Ehn's work and for Rude Mechanicals and Foundry and Broadway babies. And the stronger each gets the stronger we all are. So make this space. Make this work. Make it matter. And make it known. Change the world, the discourse, the habits through theater! It's what you do. And your success will only make more room for Bruce and those who fall inside his personal definition of what and why. And, Bruce, if you are in NYC in the next little while, go see Foundry's production of FUREE/Pins and Needles. It's standing in the middle distance between what you do and what Michael does. You may celebrate its dear and decorative heart, which it wears proudly on its sleeve. Others are celebrating its impact on the community creating it. And that celebration in every direction is invigorating.

Bruce, one of my favorite moments in knowing you (and admiring you, I should add) for the last 25 years or so was a little over a year ago, when, crossing paths in the halls at Steppenwolf, you asked me what I was up to. And I told you about a project in Oregon my company was working on. Buses, and urban/rural conversations, and a shared meal between audience members who would be traveled thirty miles to break bread and finish a story with strangers...you looked at me and said "that sounds like absolute hell. I would slit my wrists. Really, people want to do that?" And I laughed. And I think you did as well.

Same as I did, as I think we both did, in 1994 (or so) when you told me it was so great that I do theatre with people with HIV and AIDS, and said it was so great that I did all that "good work". ( I believe the air quotes were yours, but my memory could be failing me).

I do indeed acknowledge that I make theatre for one set of reasons, and others make theatre for other reasons. But that doesn't mean I can't, and don't, have the desire to speak to others who share similar interests and values, and move what I see as a useful and necessary conversation into the field.

Bruce, there are theatre artists who have been making work that isn't just decorative, in this country and around the world, for many years. Maybe you don't know about their work; dinner's on me, and I'll bore you and drive you to deep irritation.

I don't want to be a doctor, or a politician, and I have founded and run two community organizations- but what I do is make art.
And I choose to do it differently than you, for different reasons. I don't make work, as you suggest, to console the conscience of liberals, and I don't share your opinion that theatre doesn't help the health of the tree.

I am not even remotely uncomfortable to admit the limits of the work I do, because the limits you see aren't the limits I see. And I wonder what in my lack of discomfort, which i gather strikes you as clueless, or naive, makes you uncomfortable.

I really love Clyburne Park, by the way.

MIchael -

And I would hate it if you stopped doing your work. Didn't mean to make you feel I consider you clueless or naive... I just have trouble with anyone suggesting (and I'm not even sure that you were) that art "should" be any one particular thing. Democracy is hard, and it's hard for us (or rather, me) to let each other do our own thing. Whatever gets you off, I say. And obviously if making the world a better place was my kink I'd do that, too. My kink just happens to be a little more selfish. And I'm a still a lefty. Go figure.

Michael -

First, would it be possible for you to acknowledge that YOU create theatre for one set of very personal reasons, while another person might have an equally valid and contrary reason for creating their own? When you set these ideas down as "manifesto", (in blank verse), forgive me, my friend, but you speak for yourself - admirably so, but it is only for yourSELF.

And secondly, if you suggest that what you ultimately want to accomplish is to "contribute to a healthy, functional democracy" , then, forgive me, but may I modestly suggest that you have chosen the most radically inefficient and indirect means to achieve your goal? By CREATING THEATRE? I mean, seriously, go back to school, be a doctor, go into politics, do community organization... almost ANYTHING you could conceivably do would contribute more directly to social change than CREATING THEATRE. (!?!?)

ALL theatre, that lovely thing that all of us do, is at best decorative, and while it may console the conscience of us liberals to create theatre that inclines toward issues that touch our sense of fairness or "democracy", it is not, and never HAS BEEN theatre that leads change in those areas. NEVER. Theatre, dear, sweet, useless theatre, is like the ornaments on a Christmas tree. They make the tree prettier, yes, but they do nothing for the health of the tree. And if it makes us uncomfortable to admit that, then we should switch to a different line of work.

interesting insights, although i have to disagree a bit with your metaphor...while theatre may be like ornaments on a christmas tree, i don't think it's about making the tree prettier, it's more about bringing people and communities to the tree - to talk about the tree, to look at and think about the tree in, perhaps, a way they didn't before.

i work for a global sports company, where we mobilize around sport for social change. i believe art can do the same thing.

I'm appreciative of this conversation, and I'm curious to see where The Center for Performance, Public Practice

& Civic Innovation will lead. My reservations about these kinds of statements is that they sometimes lead to nowhere. Michael Rohd's reputation as a "doer" is well-known. I hope that helps to move his ideas forward in tangible ways. Reality: this depth of change can be glacial, so I have to remind myself to be patient and generous.

Outstanding! I was there when Michael delivered his query to Rocco Landesman, and it was a great moment. This call to imagination rivals it. His choice of "civic theater" harkens back to an important and overlooked figure in the history of the American stage, Percy MacKaye, whose book by the same name is also inspiring. As a college teacher, I see a great need for theatre education to break out of the theatre-as-commodity orientation, stop "training" (dogs are trained, right?) employees, and instead educate artist-citizens.

Yes, yes, and YES!!!
As a theatre artist, this is the mission statement I want to work from. With the idea of synergy in mind, I am a graduate student at the University of Maryland in a new MFA in Performance program and Michael Rohd will be running some workshops with us next year. Looking forward to the opportunity to hear more about his views on the relationship between theatre and productive civil discourse. Something in the connection he makes between art and democracy reminds me of Whitman's "Song of Myself"; Rohd's piece could even be retitled: "Song of the New American Theatre".

Michael, this is a fantastically energizing piece to read and contemplate. It was de Toqueville who said [something like] the health of a democracy can be measured by the degree of cultural participation (and production) of its citizens. As socially-awake artists, how can we engage in the dialogue of our culture, our country, rather than simply commenting on, or even representing, that dialogue?

The challenges facing this country on every level can largely be described as problems of form and content--from the form of tax code and the actual impact on the lives of citizens to the structure of our educational system and the actual content of education. The primary challenge of the artist is the question of form and content--how best to articulate and express ideas, emotions, events, arguments. Who better to engage in and further the dialogue surrounding our national challenges of form and content than those citizens whose work is centered on these problems, and on imagining into existence creative solutions?

I am a young theatre artist, and I am a citizen. Where is the Americorps program for me to serve my community as an artist, not in a solipsistic way or as a diversion/entertainment, but to actively exercise civic agency through the development of performance? I look forward to the inception of your Center.

What first drew me to the theater was the "magic" that happens when a group of strangers gather to engage in creating a community for two hours. I'm sure that I'm not alone in that. But shortly thereafter, the fear that we were squandering such a potent activity on creating mere diversions began to distress me. I look forward to seeing this Center take shape and to being a part of the dialogue in any way I can!