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Towards an Anxious Theatre

I’m sick of hearing the term “innovative thinking." All thought, all real thought, is innovative. Carving out space for theatrical stories is innovative. Great big naturalistic rambling epic dramas, robotic debates, audio-visual bus tours, site-specific Shakespeare, and grand proscenium Shakespeare, theatre under a bridge, or on a hillside, all of these are our ways of telling stories. But why are we telling these stories? What are we doing through our work that builds community, encourages ambiguity, embraces otherness, cures an ill of some sort, and all the while celebrates everything that is actually fabulous about our country?

I argue that cultural organizations are driven by a desire for comfort, and exist in a state of fear and anxiety. Fear paralyzes: keep those subscription numbers from falling further, up the single ticket goal, appeal to youth but don’t offend the old folks. Comfort, on the other hand, is just a place you can land if you are able to purchase distance from fear. I don’t find the place of comfort very comforting. It’s all about balance. Balance the budget. Balance the programming. Zero sum theatre. Nothing is risked. Nothing changes. Everything is mitigated. And the world is safe.

Portrait of Jonathon Moscone.
Jonathan Moscone. Photo by YBCA.

Anxiety, however, keeps me on my toes. I can’t sleep with all the thoughts zooming through my head about what our theatre (Cal Shakes) is not. In my most comfortable moments, I’m disturbed by faces of staff behind their computers—working hard no doubt but talking only in their heads and not to each other. There’s no noise in the joint. I want to knock the walls down, unplug everyone, and talk. And listen. And question.

A few weeks ago we read and discussed Meiyin Wang’s manifesto in HowlRound, and I felt like she was punching me left and right, provoking me—the old geezer (I used to be an “emerging artist," now I’m looking all around me wondering what the hell is happening)—as she saw into the future with a restless, impassioned brain. And I got more and more anxious. After reading about these great examples of things under the radar, I wonder about people in the radar, and above the radar. And while we are on it —why are we using language that separates us by class and coolness? Large, mid-sized, storefront, wherever you are on the radar, we are all under the radar. We are the American theatre.

There’s talk twenty-four-seven, at national conferences like TCG, boutique conferences like NPI, local conferences (here under auspices of Theatre Bay Area, like TBA), about appealing to new audiences, that is to say, younger audiences. Everyone from funder to organization to artist feels compelled to race onto the technological autobahn and make theatre in what everyone seems to think is the new reality.

In a world of competing versions of reality, we are busy trying to keep up with the fastest one, trying see and hear at the same rate of speed as the virtual world behind the screen. As a result, we cannot see things that are moving so slowly as to only be witnessed by that rare breed: the futurist—shaking his or her head in bemusement as we, theatremakers and funders (I mean foundations) attempt to define the new reality, seeing five moments into the future and convincing ourselves somehow we can actually predict what’s going to happen one second after that. And we scramble to make policy, to chase the grant and write a play in a way that no one has seen yet. Innovation rules!

The world is going so fast, and storytelling has become democratized beyond our wildest imagination, and the conventional wisdom (yes, conventional) is that the theatre needs to embrace the new reality, this new democracy and dismantle and diversify our notions of artmaking into as many little bits and bytes as we can eat and serve. Constant dissemination is the new form of theatremaking.

I think that’s fabulous. And I think some of it is hooey. Not because it isn’t true. It’s happening and we are smart to grab a hold of it.

And yet.

Sometimes I think we are just making a case for cutting ourselves off from the gnarly face to face conversations that make up the essence of every story ever told, that we’re actually just too distracted for our own good. As a national community, we’ve stopped questioning ourselves in the hopes of hearing answers from elsewhere. We keep listening to constituencies who are not connected to our work. I get it and I wholeheartedly agree. We need to connect to people outside of our self-defined radar: to the colorful and queer, the strange kids who could never talk in public but jump online with their eyes closed and communicate through words and images that actually challenge our very essences.

And what about the people who are connected to theatre, who are willfully being served by our sometimes unbalanced and challenging work? The so-called “gray audiences” who do not need to be convinced that theatre matters. They got it before we even tried to define it. I wonder what a grant to support the development of older audiences would look like? Perhaps their stories, stories of lived experience, will force us to slow down, stop racing, listen—perhaps we’ll listen for hours on end.

Are we afraid to make our missions bold, brave, specific, and with such a purpose that if we actually achieved them, we might no longer be necessary? And is that keeping us from being necessary right now?

So we get anxious. We talk slowly to the older members of our family and we listen quickly to those who challenge the family order as they feed us stories on the twenty-four-seven everything on my mind network. The anxiety is exhilarating—the blood rushes through our veins, our thoughts bombarded by the pace of a new world order. It’s one helluva wake up call.

And once we wake up, we have to ask that old-fashioned question: but why do we make theatre?

What the hell is our mission?

I stay up late at night and look at theatres’ websites, and I look at their programs, their stories, and never do I pass up an opportunity to read their missions. Mine included. And I’m amazed by the similarities—vague language and a glaring absence of brazen focused missions that identify a purpose beyond—that aspires to more than just the work we do. And by that I mean, through our work, we aim to do something. We are on this earth and live in our society and we all see some thing(s) we want to change, for the better. We make theatre to do what?

That’s the question we need to ask, along with listening to all that’s being said to us from people who don’t feel engaged. And that conversation is going to be different everywhere you go. I need not point out that what is true for the East Village in New York is not true for Little Rock, Arkansas, or for Costa Mesa, California, or Anchorage, Alaska, for that matter. But we all have stated missions, and we need to slow the noise down, turn off the mashup, play one song at a time, and read those words. And ask the question: are we too afraid to put our missions to the test, to see if they actually strive to plug in and light up our communities, perhaps even change a thing or two?

I bet if we embraced discomfort and approached our mission statements with honesty and without fear, we might surprise ourselves with how delightfully anxious we become. As we look at the words we chose years ago, or months ago, or even yesterday, we might find ourselves asking: to what end? Do our missions actually go to the brazen place of trying to solve something, or change something, eradicate something, or make something better?

Again, if comfort is just a buffer from fear, is fear our greatest motivator and greatest danger? Are we afraid to make our missions bold, brave, specific, and with such a purpose that if we actually achieved them, we might no longer be necessary? And is that keeping us from being necessary right now? Are we here to make plays, or are we brazen enough to claim that we aim to effect change in our local communities using theatre as one tool in our vast toolbox?

“Effecting change” sounds pretentious, but I think it’s okay for us to risk being called pretentious, to assume we might have something to say, which means, to accept the fact that we might have something we need to do.

I want to take a road trip and check out as many theatres as I can: Kansas City Rep, Salvage Vanguard, Southern Rep, Perseverance, Goodman, Portland Stage, Asolo, The Foundry, Idaho Shakespeare, Lincoln Center, Mixed Blood, Stages, Roundhouse, Ping Chong, Book It, La Jolla Playhouse, Crossroads. I want to see the work and read the missions, spend time with everybody and find out if they are actually doing what they say they do, and if what they are doing goes beyond the work that they make. Are they trying to make something happen that needs to happen in their communities? Are they willing to risk becoming irrelevant?

That’s a conversation I’d love to have with everyone in our nation who makes theatre. It may not be comfortable, and it might cause us all some real, genuine fear, but I know for sure it’d make us all anxious to become more focused while being all the while more brazen.

I thank Meiyin Wang for making my heart race. I can’t wait to listen to all the noise, then stop listening, and slow it all down so we can tell the stories that are whizzing by us in a way that earns the right for people to listen deeply. And beyond that? Perhaps change a thing or two, or a lot of things, and fulfill a purpose that might render the need to exist blissfully unnecessary, because everyone in our country will become in their own way, a theatremaker.

If what we are talking about here is about really embracing the democracy of storytelling, then we are on the road that leads us either to a revolution we will not be in control of (fear), or to an evolution that involves so much more than we can imagine at this moment (anxiety).

If what we are talking about here is about really embracing the democracy of storytelling, then we are on the road that leads us either to a revolution we will not be in control of (fear), or to an evolution that involves so much more than we can imagine at this moment (anxiety). More than identifying and lauding the new democracy, more than defining funding policy around it and then chasing those grants as we all know we do, this evolution is an opportunity to really look at ourselves. Change is a time to examine our purposes in our own communities, and what we have now are more tools to express that purpose, or in some cases, reflect on the scary possibility that our purpose is not clearly defined, or perhaps it’s ready to evolve into another purpose.

When organizations have been formed to eradicate a disease, or at least render it manageable, what happens when they achieve their missions? The purpose, brave and focused, has been fulfilled. The need to exist disappears, alters and becomes absorbed into a more relevant service to society.

In theatre, do we have that same purpose—to make something happen that isn’t happening? Or are we enacting missions that stop short of answering to what end? Maybe that’s what we are afraid of—the end. Maybe that’s why so many of our missions seem to contain subtext aimed at keeping us alive. We will never eradicate society’s need for us to gather and tell their stories. But beyond storytelling, or rather, through our storytelling, maybe we need to look at what we aim to create, destroy, or drastically alter, which when created destroyed or drastically altered, renders us no longer necessary for our communities to advance. Maybe theatres will absorb into greater causes, combine, reduce, or disappear. And that might not be a bad thing. Perhaps this thought induces fear. It’s unlikely to feel comfortable and it will be authentically anxiety-provoking. Also not a bad thing.

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You should study narrative theory. I am currently reading "On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction" by Brian Boyd which offers some really fascinating theories on why we crave stories. However he neglects to take the psyche into account and I think that serves as a missing piece in all his theories. Do we control the play of our imagination or does the play of our imagination control us? It amuses me when theater artists, with their little audience, fret over their responsibilities as Masters of our Cultural Universe.

Today, September 22, 2011, I just saw the play
"Ghost Light" at Ashland Shakespeare Theatre. It was very well done, the actors are terrific and the plot kept me thinking and connecting bits and pieces. A job well done.


Praise them indeed. i have a vague recollection of something martha nussbaum said, and i (mis)quote: the test of any civilization is in its ability to embrace ambiguity.

Hey Jon~
Re: "What are we doing through our work that ... encourages ambiguity..."
Heartened to see this included. For the most part, NOTHING is being done to ENCOURAGE ambiguity. Besides the indefatigible insistence of the Poets. Critics, audiences, directors, actors, et al, seem to desire all questions resolved, all "ambiguity" clarified. The "magic" of theatre reduced to? a theorem. Praise the playwrights (read: Poets) who confound!

yeah david, i want to take that trip. perhaps i can figure out a way to make that happen. need to write a grant or something just to cover costs and perhaps blog or film or do something to keep it alive and in the moment.

How soon can you take that trip, sir? I'd love to read your journal from the road! A similar trip changed my life, enlarged my vision, and amplified my mission. The American theater is a huge tent. Much as we want to say "do it THIS way and for THIS reason and for these (or different) people" the theater itself keeps being a big noisy tent of many different ways of doing with many different results. When you get on the road and go meet it in its backyard it's pretty thrilling. Let me know when you can do it. And how I can help!

well put monica - i grew up in the land of jesuits where service was not just part of the deal - it was the supertitle of everything we did. i think service is a big term that includes what you are talking about, and also encompasses a whole lot more, esp. when organizations are concerned.

Service can easily be pleasure. They're not mutually exclusive. The word "service" carries a connotation of obligation and drudgery (to me, at least, and--it seems--in this larger conversation). But what if theatermakers approached service as a natural integration of the pleasure of making theater? I write a play about scientists, and reach out to the local scientific community. I write a play set in Ethiopia, and reach out to the Ethiopian immigrant community. All of those connections are the foundations of long-lasting relationships. None of this is obligatory or drudge work. It's just part of the fun.

i love that mission statement. Apple's is great too. So much better than Microsoft. A lot to learn from really smart businesses. Very cool. Thanks for that reply, Chuck.

Mission statements usually suck because they are written with an eye to consensus. Open source thinking demands a willingness to embrace chaos but the pressure of being a good citizen will often diffuse that energy. Good ideas here. Good luck to you.

The only Mission Statement that has ever made any sense to me was Nike's because it was born from a statement made popular by Phil Knight's track coach.

To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world.

And the * meant "If you have a body, you are an athlete." - Bill Bowerman

Context counts in story telling and in mission statements.

unfortunately a lot of things that people do because they love doing them provide no service and only serve to sectionalize community. to deserve funding, we need to do more than what we love to do.

To what end? Pleasure. I do theater because there's nothing else I'd rather do.

That's a very non-Puritan answer. But in my experience, service and community happen as natural byproducts of doing what you love to do.

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