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Confessions, Contradictions, Beauty

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“How one walks through the world, the endless small adjustments of balance, is affected by the shifting weights of beautiful things.” —Elaine Scarry from On Beauty

I’m a romantic. This isn’t a side of myself I show the world but my romantic sense of how I think the world should be drives most everything I do. I want to feel that euphoria of new love as often as I can and I’m obsessed with beautiful things. Whenever I am in New York City I try to find a moment to rush to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and kickstart my senses by sitting in front of something for an hour—usually the Van Gogh section. The fierce color and Van Gogh’s frightening sense of the intensity of the world jives with my own drive to find something more real than what seems achievable at the surface. For better or for worse, this is why I’ve chosen a life in the theatre—to live more deeply—to indulge my own romanticism.

As a theatre practitioner, I’m preoccupied with the fear that I’ll meet beauty head on and overlook it, miss out on the chance to fall in love. I fear this because I know I’ve done it. I know, for example, that I’ve read plays and dismissed them and then later on seen wonderful and surprising productions. Their beauty didn’t live on the page or at least I didn’t see it there.

Elaine Scarry in her book On Beauty in its wonderful opening chapter, "On Beauty and Being Wrong," talks about two ways we make errors in beauty. The first and less grievous is when we hold something up as beautiful and then discover it no longer warrants our high regard. We’ve all had this experience—fallen for someone, overwhelmed by beauty, and then within minutes sometimes or hours or years, we can’t recall whatever attracted us in the first place. More worrisome, though, for Scarry is the second kind of error “something you did not hold to be beautiful suddenly turns up in your arms arrayed in full beauty.” Like Scarry, this is my great worry for the American theatre, that we might engage practices that perpetuate that second kind of error in beauty.

This essay is an attempt to make sense of my own obsessions about love and beauty, and to introduce myself as editor of HowlRound. I'm tracking my obsessions through three lenses:

Confessions: I seek honesty in my relationship with the theatre and confessing is one way I know how to chase honesty.

Contradictions: Contradictions are a root cause of misunderstanding in most relationships. Contradictions allow us to promote two conflicting ideas as equally true without accounting for how they conflict. This causes real problems in communication.

Beauty: Love is driven by a desire for beauty. But we can’t possibly agree over what defines beauty and so beauty can be the greatest source of division in any relationship.

I will always think of myself as an outsider to the theatre. In fact, I’ve always felt like an outsider to most of the worlds that I’ve inhabited in my adult life—primarily academic institutions and the theatre. I grew up intellectually in the 90s when all stories started from a personal vantage point. This is a limited way to consider story, but I do think how we consume culturally is inextricably linked to how and when we encounter such opportunities to do so. I really had no experience with the theatre until I got to college.

I grew up on the constant precipice of my family’s financial demise. We didn’t have money to consume culture. Elkhart, Indiana, is two hours from Chicago but we went only once to Chicago as a family and not until I was in high school. My escape from what felt like the trap of a small town in Indiana was literature. I read everything and I lay in bed at night and dreamt myself into the fiction I read. Over two weeks one summer I read the entire Tolkien series and I’m not embarrassed to say that I was Half Pint’s best friend on the prairie in the Little House on the Prairie books. My favorite author growing up was Charles Dickens. I had devoured almost his entire oeuvre by the time I entered high school.

Under Dickens’s tutelage it’s no wonder that I was preoccupied with social justice through most of high school and college. I was a consummate fan of the underdog, and while at the University of Notre Dame I led the largest protest since the 1960s when in 1988 Ronald Reagan came to campus to proselytize about his particular brand of trickle-down economics. I didn’t believe money would ever roll downhill into my mostly empty pockets. I went to Notre Dame on scholarships, credit cards, and student loans and in four years I never skipped a class because of my acute awareness of what this was costing my family and me. Over time I constructed a personal politics heavily influenced by the left-wing Catholicism of Liberation Theology, tinged with a righteous right-wing sensibility about work ethic and personal responsibility.

Although I no longer practice Catholicism or believe in boot straps, I can’t entirely escape either worldview and I know when I talk about theatre much of my thinking evolves from a Catholic morality about our responsibility to others and a Republican notion of individual freedom. Even when I write that, I think, now, that’s a weird combo. I’m not sure exactly when I fell in love with the theatre, but it was relatively recent. And I’m pretty sure I wasn’t head over heels with the theatre when I took over as the producing artistic director of the Playwrights’ Center in 2002, although I had a few affairs leading up to wanting that job.

Five actors and the director sitting on stage.
The 1986 cast of A Long Day's Journey into Night with Director Jonathon Miller (on the floor). Photo courtesy of kevinspacey.com.

In 1986 I saw Jack Lemmon in Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey Into Night while studying in London. Although my family and the Tyrones weren’t an exact fit, the specter of financial hardship, addiction, and general dysfunction resonated deeply for me. In 1999 or thereabouts, I saw a reading at the Playwrights’ Center of Lisa D’Amour’s The Cataract. The deeply poetic language and the blurring of real life and dream life in Lisa’s writing touched some deep chord, acknowledged a place in my up until that point pragmatic existence that demanded a full-fledge commitment to a creative life however I might piece that together.

But to be honest, I always resisted loving the theatre, because it felt like such a public act. I could love literature in the privacy of my bedroom, within the contours of a very personal space, but to shed tears in a theatre, or to laugh robustly, or to get on my feet in the form of a standing ovation made me feel too vulnerable. I refused to give that kind of love away easily.

Pointy Heads Versus the People
My stinginess around giving love away sometimes stands in direct contrast to my romantic, indulgent self. And this very personal contradiction leads me to think long and hard about what I fall in love with.

At the Playwrights’ Center I was forced to take on the question of my personal aesthetic from the outset. Running a national playwriting organization forced me to question my own aesthetic disposition that up until then had been pretty narrow. My tastes had been informed by my intellectual pursuits and those pursuits were rooted in deconstruction—breaking apart how what we consider to be legitimate art is driven by cultural norms and presuppositions that take words like “genius” and “greatness” as self-evident.

As a self-proclaimed “pointy head” I had a certain disdain for anything the masses considered great art. And if anything almost turned me away from the theatre forever it was seeing Cats in London at age twenty and trying to figure out what the big deal was—I was skeptical of any art form that could embrace that. But then suddenly I found myself running this organization that wasn’t about my tastes, or me but about something larger, about a profession and an art form and disparate ways of telling stories. I got to know these playwrights, saw the work develop over months and years and I fell in love in a different way, in a more personal way—less heady at times and more tactile. My tastes changed. I championed plays that I might have dismissed before. I thought about audiences in a broader way and watched how different audiences reacted to different kinds of stories and forms of storytelling. I knew I had to rethink my definition of aesthetics and I turned to cultural theory for help.

Pierre Bourdieu, a French cultural theorist who died in 2002, contends “that intellectuals could be said to believe in the representation—literature, theatre, painting—more than the thing represented, whereas the people chiefly expect representation and the conventions which govern them to allow them to believe ‘naively’ in the things represented.” Bourdieu believes that what he calls the “pure aesthetic” “is rooted in an ethic or rather an ethos of elective distance from the necessities of the natural world.” Let me take a minute to unpack this sentiment, as it is Bourdieu’s distinction between “the people”—his name for the working class—and those who typically define culture, taste, and the value of art that shapes much of my own relationship to the theatre.

Bourdieu argues that form and function separate how disparate classes experience culture. The working class seeks experiences that are relevant to the day-to-day needs of living, of surviving. They gravitate to stories in whatever form that speak to their lives in a real and connected way. Intellectuals, critics, or anyone who has the luxury of sitting back and determining what gets deemed as aesthetically satisfying—those who define taste—aren’t fretting about their next meal or if they’re going to make this month’s rent. They have more capacity to accept art on its own terms, whether it is something useful or not. This isn’t to say that all taste-makers are well off financially, but rather, back to Bourdieu’s point, they perpetuate a sense of distance from the mundane of the everyday.

Indulgences for Art
I wonder, like Bourdieu, if in fact the intellectual and artistic vantage point doesn’t by necessity come at the expense of proximity to the work itself? As Bourdieu says, “the detachment of the pure gaze cannot be disassociated from a general disposition towards the world which is the paradoxical product of conditioning by negative economic necessity—a life of ease—that tends to induce an active distance from necessity.” These words sum up my own skepticism about the theatre and some of the reasoning behind my resistance to falling for it.

The luxury of long conversations about a play’s structure, the indulgence of four weeks in a rehearsal room, four tech days, and nine previews to talk about the same play over and over so that it becomes a distant object, so that in the days before opening we may no longer feel the play’s humor or pathos as we focus on bringing the technical details of the production together. We wait for opening night for audiences to remind us why we ever wanted to produce this play in the first place. Days before opening I drive home and think—like a well-trained Catholic as I listen to the news of more home foreclosures and over crowded soup kitchens—about the necessity of this play on life’s terms. Should we in fact “subordinate art to the values of the art of living?” In a withering economy I feel okay about crawling into bed at night with a novel but less certain about big production budgets and large-scale theatrical events. I purposely hold myself in check and like a good Catholic girl admonish myself for taking such great pleasure in my work.

Debutantes and Day Jobs
The point I’m hoping to convey, however, is subtler than simply arguing that art is a privilege only a few can afford. I gravitate toward Bourdieu because of the way in which he takes a conversation about art and life and imbues it with terms like “ethic” and “disposition.” He recognizes the “aesthetic disposition” as one we take on, not necessarily a position we’re born into. I often assume given my own vantage point that ninety percent of the theatre artists I meet started from a place of privilege. Sometimes I will know an artist for years and assume she was a debutante and then find out our backgrounds weren’t so different. I’m surprised by my own assumptions but recognize this perspective is informed by a larger American perception about art as separate from need, art as separate from day-to-day living.

When I read of the dire straights that theatre artists find themselves in, in books like Outrageous Fortune for example, or when a theatre artist tells me about spending grant money on dental work, in the back of my mind a vague thought lingers (remember that deeply imbedded Republican sensibility)—well these playwrights need day jobs then! I confess this like a good Catholic because I believe I must own up to the internal contradictions that shape my own life in the arts.

The idea that the knowing eye defines art, or that an artistic vision for a theater can be driven by a singular definition of beauty is always part mythology. We must make sense of the underlying contradictions that influence the origins of our aesthetic vantage point.

Contradictions are the bedrock of any aesthetic disposition. Such contradictions live at the heart of the season planning process when an artistic department comprised of very different tastes tries to come to agreement about what to produce in the upcoming season. The idea that the knowing eye defines art, or that an artistic vision for a theatre can be driven by a singular definition of beauty is always part mythology. We must make sense of the underlying contradictions that influence the origins of our aesthetic vantage point by looking practically at the conditions that form our reality when making theatre.

The First Contradiction: Artistic Vision Needs Audience Development
“The truth is, the playwrights are the people who are talking to the audience. While they have to listen to their own muse, they also have to listen to the hunger, the intellectual hunger that the audience has. Otherwise audiences are going to just stop coming.”—Artistic Director from Outrageous Fortune

“Writers complain that theatres are both constrained by their subscribers, and that they lack faith in their audience’s ability to grapple with challenging work.”—Outrageous Fortune

Artists and audiences together form the nexus for the dialectic that must shape an aesthetic disposition. If we can identify any trend in the American theatre over the last twenty-five years, conversations around audience development and the role of the audience as active participant in the shaping of theatrical institutions certainly has to be one of the most definitive.

In a compelling articulation, Zelda Fichandler, one of the founders of the regional theatre movement, in an article in American Theatre Magazine in 2000 describes how institutions are a reflection of a particular aesthetic disposition,

“Our theatres are destinations in themselves, crucibles in which to test a vision of the world that is ours, not someone else’s. All art is personal, an expression of one’s perception of life through imagination, intellect, emotion and what we call the soul.”

Artists and artistic organizations are defined by their singularity of vision, a driving passion that values the art, the imagination above all else—and this is often a passion driven by one individual.

In Todd London’s The Artistic Home he quotes an artistic director talking about subscriptions this way, “I dream of selling subscriptions for a hundred-plus dollars, with no titles and no dates—just the promise to deliver a full season of our best work.” In essence this is the dream—art for art’s sake. We hope that we can convince our audience of the importance of our singular vision, a vision that is socially relevant and a vision that our audience will accept on our terms. This sentiment distinguishes the not-for-profit and commercial theatre. As Fichandler goes on to say, “Our theatres do not exist for economic profit but they do exist to generate a profit of a different kind: a profit of a social nature and a profit that is earned from the examination of reality by means of a theatrical art. It is in this sense of the word that our reason for existing lies.”

I don’t think there is a single artistic director of a not-for-profit theatre in this country who wouldn’t affirm the importance of this sentiment in explaining in part their passion for running such an institution. Yet, economic profit can’t help but be on everyone’s mind. We are all working to make one or more versions of profit and we all recognize there is a complicated relationship between having the means to generate profit of a social nature while acknowledging our reliance on a for profit world for how we fund our theatres. The vision is particular but we have to convince outsiders that it’s a vision worth supporting. The commercial sector, whether in theatre or any other business, doesn’t bear this same burden. It embraces its mission to please much more readily. In the not-for-profit sector we try to convince our audience that something is good for them whether they always like it or not. This scenario is inevitable in a field that is driven by individual aesthetics.

In our efforts to convince the audience of the merits of our vision, we use the buzz word “transparency” to describe how to give our audiences a better vantage point into the internal processes that drive the vision. As we make transparency a sustaining value inside the theatre process, our audience deepens its desire to “participate” in what we do. Ideally that participation happens in the form of an engaging discourse but sometimes the discourse can cross a line—into boards of directors having a role in season planning, let’s say. Suddenly lawyers and CEO’s begin to define our aesthetic disposition. On the surface this seems an absurdity. What CEO would allow me to go in and tell him/her how to run a company? What would make me think I even could? But the not-for-profit structure relies so heavily on the good will of outsiders, that we’ve made the aesthetic disposition ever more accessible. We complain about these pressures to please, but money can so easily confuse the ethical principles that define our disposition.

The Second Contradiction: Amateurs Versus Professionals
Ruth Fischer argued in 1974 in her essay “The Shame of Theatre Arts,” that the growing disparity between university drama departments and professional theatres had in essence created a kind of bush league where failed theatre artists go to teach and where we perpetuate the notion that: a) there are an endless number of jobs available in the theatre profession, and b) students are fed fantasies of becoming professional artists. She suggests the disassembling of the bulk of university drama departments. Robert Brustein founded the Yale Repertory Theatre as a rebuff to the amateurism of drama departments. He saw the anti-elitism underpinning 60s activism result in drama departments embracing “amateur standards as a measure of achievement.” Certainly in the subsequent thirty-plus years many stabs have been taken at addressing this issue. At the Playwrights’ Center we created a program called New Plays on Campus to create an opportunity for more playwright residencies on college campuses and to bring students to the Playwrights’ Center to work in a professional setting.

Sometimes this is what we do best; we create programs where we might be better off fostering dialogue. In my work at The Playwrights’ Center, an organization with a long history of working with emerging artists, our job through programs, panels, and fellowships was to distinguish between the hobbyist, the trained, and the truly talented. I heard many times from Artistic Directors about the glut of unworthy new plays, from playwrights baffled as to why their work wasn’t being produced, and from various communities about what should be the proper role of a playwright service organization.

I was surprised when I became Producing Artistic Director of that organization by how invested the local community and the country were in shaping what it stood for. There was a passionate and constant disagreement over its proper function. I didn’t fully understand just how deep the divide ran until a coalition of local playwrights made a concerted effort to get me fired with the claim that I had abandoned local playwrights, played favorites, and generally narrowed the scope of the organization to serve a few national playwriting figures. Of course these kinds of events are always about perception, but regardless of the decisions I made in leading the organization, I now understand that stretch of time was in part a result of the organization and the field’s unwillingness to talk more honestly about the amateur/professional divide.

We cannot help but to want to have it two ways—to perpetuate the contradiction--professing both a belief in creating greater accessibility for those aspiring to live as artists and maintaining that talent cannot be taught or learned. For the sake of our own livelihoods and for the future of the art form, we must train and mentor the next generation of theatre artists. Colleges and universities are primary funders of the arts, hiring artists to teach. Most theatre artists know that no matter what their level of success, teaching will become a supplementary if not primary source of income and health insurance. But we also have to believe we are experts, perhaps naturally imbued with a level of artistic talent that only a few can attain. We must see ourselves as having a special disposition. We have to believe training playwrights and training lawyers are two different things as one kind of training is about harnessing a gift, the other about learning a profession. There is much more to mine in uncovering how deep this contradiction runs in our field, not the least of which is the impact of technology in instantly catapulting “amateurs” to star status, the use of Web 2.0 to create artistic personas real or fictionalized, and the role of commercialism in influencing how aesthetic dispositions are shaped –which artists and what art will define talent and beauty.

The Third Contradiction: Who’s the Genius Clashes with New Play Development
I came to new play dramaturgy late and through the back door, the same way I came to theatre. I wasn’t trained as a dramaturg, and I guess I still don’t know exactly what that means, to train as a dramaturg. I understand what it might mean to train as a literary manager or a research dramaturg but how do you train someone to aid and abet in making a new play better?

I was working with a very talented dramaturg once who I encouraged to apply for theatre artist award through the Playwrights’ Center and was met with, “but I’m not an artist.” Yet, I had seen this dramaturg in action, a true creative force in the room. So what was she, I asked myself? A critic? An administrator? My assessment was that she was someone who understood deeply the nature of storytelling, and had an eye and an ear for understanding how that story worked on a stage. I’ve avoided calling myself a dramaturg for two reasons: one, I bring an academic righteousness to most things and if I didn’t train to be something than I’m hesitant to claim any expertise, and two, because dramaturges and dramaturgy often stand in as the scapegoat for all that is wrong in the American theatre.

In revisiting the history of dramaturgy in this country, I’m aware that rhetoric about the harmful impact of dramaturgs and the more general malaise to the field caused by so much play development is a topic that has been visited and revisited for about forty years, every five to ten years repeated like it’s the very first time the problem has been considered. In a piece from 1988 “The Dream Machine: Thirty Years of New Play Development,” Douglas Anderson takes up this topic and he says two things I find interesting: “for it has become the stated purpose of the dramaturg to crystallize the playwright’s ideas for her—to help her articulate what she’s feeling, realize on paper the play that is kicking around in her head. This clearly can’t be taught.” He also says,

“a new strain of dramaturgy arrived in the wake of the new play industry, but dramaturgs have long been a part of the American theatre, but we called them producers. It was the producer who nurtured talents, made textual comments, sat through rehearsals, and generally brought the authority of his knowledge and experience to bear on the product. The playwright never had complete control of her vision—and in many cases, that worked in her favor."

Implicit in what Anderson is saying is the problem of amateur/professional. New play dramaturgy can’t really be taught, like playwriting, it’s a creative endeavor that one can get better at but it is as instinctual as acting, playwriting, and directing. Yet, when we roll it up into a staff position that includes actor packet research and script management, it’s easy to point to that mid-level arts administrator person as the problem—that person who keeps ruining plays with all their efforts to help. In his producer definition, Anderson recognizes what a good dramaturg or producer (I like producer better because it isn’t laden with such scorn and it represents a kind of power that includes getting a play onto a stage) does is look at the whole—and this includes supporting more than the play, but also the playwright. I’ve heard dramaturgs say, “my job is to be responsible to the play.” I think that’s all of our jobs. But as a producer, I take special care to balance my knowledge of the artists involved while fostering a process where any one of us in the room can contribute to making the play and the production better.

In my experience of a good process, different artists in the room discover things to advance a play at different times. This is a circuitous route to my contradiction but I feel better getting that off of my chest. The contradiction rests in a belief that art comes out of individual genius. I love the theatre because unless you self-produce entirely—write, design, act in, and produce a play—your success is dependent upon the genius of others. The new play development process continues to be so controversial in this country because it’s the process that most exposes the collaborative nature of theatre. It’s the process that depends on more egos and it’s the process that most threatens our individual sensibilities about our role in the process. It calls into question the “who” of aesthetic disposition, who will ultimately control what the production feels like to an audience? Who will get credit for making something beautiful?

“From the first it has been the theatre’s business to entertain people, as it also has of all the other arts. It is this business which always gives it particular dignity; it needs no other passport than fun, but this it has got to have. We should not by any means be giving it a higher status… The theatre must in fact remain something entirely superfluous, though this indeed means that it is the superfluous for which we live. Nothing needs less justification than pleasure.”
—Bertolt Brecht, “A Short Organum for the Theatre,” Brecht On Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic.

“The theatre must in fact remain something entirely superfluous, though this indeed means that it is the superfluous for which we live.” And here we circle back to Bourdieu, the aesthetic disposition is one that is detached from necessity. Those of us who make theatre find it beautiful in its own right. Whether we admit it or not, we embrace art for art’s sake. It doesn’t necessarily make the environment cleaner, or food more abundant, or poverty less severe but “nothing needs less justification than pleasure.” So, what constitutes a pleasurable experience? How do we recognize good theatre and how do we make it?

In my years of developing new plays, this is a most contested topic, but one we rarely discuss. In fact, when I went about the research of discussions of taste in theatre, I was shocked at how little I was able to find. I think back to Zelda Fichandler’s artistic vision, that singular and personal thing that we ask our audiences to accept on its own terms. Yet, in my work at the Playwrights’ Center this issue of taste came to be the source of my greatest frustration. I would fall in love with plays and work tirelessly to find productions for them, and consistently face rejection. Sure we had a lot of plays come out of the Playwrights’ Center and get produced, but many more never made it past the workshop.

At one level, this makes sense. Research and development is like that, a series of experiments where failure is expected. But sometimes I just felt convinced certain plays belonged on a stage: Kathleen Tolan’s beautiful What to Listen For, Ruth Margraff’s imaginative Harlequin, Kira Obolensky’s savvy Modern House, Victoria Stewart’s intelligent 800 Words: The Transmigration of Philip K. Dick, Lisa D’Amour’s The Night Sky—to name but a very few. I notice these are all plays by women. But let’s not go there in this essay. Why not? Okay, at least let’s ask whether or not the aesthetic disposition is gendered?

When Todd London was doing work on Outrageous Fortune, he came to Minneapolis to meet with various representatives of the field. My focus group was mostly comprised of artistic directors from producing institutions. We talked about how plays are selected and all of the artistic directors at the table agreed that it was about love. They fell in love with plays. They couldn’t explain it any differently. This made sense to me and I spent a lot of time after that meeting thinking about how I might foster love connections.

One of the projects we did included making trailers of new plays and sending them around the country. My thinking was, when I go to a movie, a good trailer can bring me back. Perhaps I could seduce artistic directors this way? The response was mixed and generally divided among generations of theatre artists. But I did hear consistently in response to the first round of trailers we sent out that seeing this mini production for some artistic directors interfered with their own imagination about a play’s potential; their personal vision of a play’s potential was more easily accessed from the page.

I was back where I started. My obsession with creating love connections started with what felt like a mandate to get plays off the page, create more intimate opportunities for artistic directors to connect with them. The go around with the year-long trailer project caused me to become fatigued with the “love conquers all” approach to the theatre. Let’s be honest artistic directors and producers—there are a lot of reasons we produce plays. We produce them because sometimes we fall in love, sometimes we’re influenced by reviews and the idea of a “hot” play; often we do them because we have relationships with artists, whether they be a playwright or a director excited about a play. We’re influenced by pedigree, MFA degrees, enhancement money, and prestige. We’re influenced by institutional history, budgets, and our perceptions of our audience. A lot of factors collide to get a play onto a stage—merit and love being only a part of the equation. I think the love connection leaves too many artists feeling unattractive.

In Zadie Smith’s 2005 novel On Beauty, we are asked to consider beauty from numerous angles including through the eyes of Wellington College’s Lecturer in Aesthetics, Howard Belsey. Howard’s academic project is focused on exposing the constructed nature of beauty in his critique of the work and genius of Rembrandt. This is a novel that embodies in its narrative the utterly cultural and political nature of the battle over aesthetic disposition. As the Belsey family listens to an outdoor concert of Mozart’s Requiem much to Howard’s dismay, his wife Kiki ponders what is at the heart of Smith’s narrative:

Mozart’s Requiem begins with you walking towards a huge pit. The pit is on the other side of a precipice, which you cannot see over until you are right at its edge. Your death is awaiting you in that pit. You don’t know what it looks like or sounds like or smells like. You don’t know whether it will be good or bad. You just walk towards it. Your will is a clarinet and your footsteps are attended by all the violins. The closer you get to the pit, the more you begin to have the sense that what awaits you there will be terrifying. Yet you experience this terror as a kind of blessing, a gift. Your long walk would have no meaning were it not for this pit at the end of it. You peer over the precipice: a burst of ethereal noise crashes over you. In the pit is a great choir, like the one you joined for two months at Wellington in which you were the only black woman. This choir is the heavenly host and simultaneously the devil’s army. It is also every person who has changed you during your time on this earth: your many lovers; your family; your enemies, the nameless faceless woman who slept with your husband; the man you thought you were going to marry; the man you did. The job of this choir is judgment. The men sing first, and their judgment is very severe. And when the women join in there is no respite, the debate only grows louder and sterner. For it is debate—you realize that now. The judgment is not yet decided. It is surprising how dramatic the fight for your measly soul turns out to be.

And for me in this passage I discover the definition of the aesthetic disposition—“a dramatic fight for your measly soul.”

When we put forth our artistic vision and build institutions around them, we fight for the soul of the American theatre, we fight for the soul of an artistic community, and we fight for the soul of every potential audience member. When we own up to the dramatic and public nature of this fight, we own up to the incredible responsibility we have undertaken as practicing theatre artists. This is why for so long I shied away from falling in love with theatre—generalized anxiety when faced with heavy drama—and this is why I hope to provoke more debate on the question of how we talk about the theatre and its relationship to an aesthetic disposition.


  • Anderson, Doug. "The Dream Machine: Thirty Years of New Play Development in America." TDR: The Drama Review 32, no. 3 (198): 55-84.
  • Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984.
  • Brecht, Bertolt. Brecht on Theatre. Trans. John Willett. New York: Hill and Wang, 1978.
  • Brustein, Robert. "Theater and the University." New Republic 171, no. 20 (November 16, 1974): 13-16.
  • Fichandler, Zelda. "The Profit in Nonprofit." American Theatre 17, no. 10 (December 2000): 30-33.
  • Fischer, Ruth. "The Shame of Theater Arts." Change 6, no. 5 (1974): 34-38.
  • London, Todd. The Artistic Home. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988.
  • London, Todd. Outrageous Fortune. With Ben Pesner and Zannie Giraud Voss. New York: Theatre Development Fund, 2009.
  • Scarry, Elaine. On Beauty and Being Just. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.
  • Smith, Zadie. On Beauty. London: The Penguin Press, 2005.


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I re-read this following the National Theatre Conference gathering. Terrific. Shared it with my ensemble. I think the "love connection" explains a lot about the joy and turmoil we experience as we collectively select the plays we will do in the upcoming season (it comes down to a group vote). "Love" plus all the production imperatives that go into the mix! -- Laurie McCants

Thank you Polly. The article is fantastic. Your intelligence, honesty, and knowledge astounds me. And it is clear you are a romantic to all that know you. I'm grateful you articulated about your resistance to falling in love with the theater. The responsibility overwhelms me daily - it is a lot easier to root for the Yankees.