Double Vision at the Humana Festival
Educators and Industry Professionals In and Out of Conflict
This is a story with an uncomfortably unresolved ending.
It begins with me, at home, excited about the new online registration process for the Professionals Weekend at the Humana Festival. I encounter a page asking me to select the “category that best describes my affiliation with the festival.” First thought: none of these categories describes me completely, but I’ll play this game and go with my paycheck-identity. After all, I’ve been socking away cash from that very paycheck for an entire year just so I can afford the tickets. So, “educator” it is. High school, undergraduate, or graduate? Undergraduate, I say. Next page: “Please pick your College Days performance package.” College Days? That’s not the option I selected at the beginning of this new-fangled process. I want to attend the professionals weekend. But, no worries, the moment of confusion passes as I realize I can click a button that gives me the option I want.
Oh, sorry, that one’s sold out.
Wait a second.
What if I were to self-identify as an agent?
Would that make a difference?
Yep. Plenty of tickets.
And now I’m mad.
So, next morning, I call the Festival office, explain what has happened, and the organizers effortlessly diffuse my customer relations bomb. Amiably and sympathetically, they willingly include me in the Professionals’ package. When I subsequently ask Actors Theatre about the rationale for the registration process, I get perfectly reasonable answers: the festival organizers are trying to accommodate the interests of multiple groups of people, and complicated logistics guide the packages they make available; the registration categories are admittedly simplistic; and, true to my own experience, they are absolutely committed to making exceptions for people who, like me, “wish to attend as an individual, not in [my] capacity as a professor chaperoning a group of students.”
When I press the public relations manager for clarification, I get another reasonable answer: Actors Theatre wants to make sure its playwrights and their plays continue to have a life after the festival ends.
That right there. That’s the part of the official response that bothers me. Why is it that I am an individual when I attend the event that has become a cornerstone of my professional efforts to participate in the complicated web of supporting new plays? When I press the public relations manager for clarification, I get another reasonable answer: Actors Theatre wants to make sure its playwrights and their plays continue to have a life after the festival ends. They need to think about the people with “influence over the play having a future.”
Yes. Remember the moment I fake-registered as an agent? It doesn’t take much to picture the people who set up the registration tree, benignly and unconsciously forgetting that, as teachers of history and dramatic criticism, many people like me are obsessed with finding ways to get artistic directors to green light new plays. Even if those artistic directors are department chairs or the “future professionals” I help educate. It’s also easy for industry insiders—friends, really—to jump to my defense and apologize for the shortsighted and simplistic elitism of their colleagues.
We scoff and grunt at the ridiculousness of it all. Can’t they see how teachers spread the word about new plays, reinforcing the familiarity that ultimately impacts people’s season planning decisions? Don’t they know we sometimes produce plays we see at the festival?
And then begins the retreat. In the immediate aftermath of the professional slight, I never follow through on the emails I fire off to friends threatening to howl about the injustice of it all. I like—no, love—the Humana Festival. People at Actors Theatre have always treated me well. Plus, I’m not in high school any more, and I work hard (sort of) to suppress my outsider anxieties. I know Actors Theatre isn’t really responsible for validating my professional identity, and I feel a little silly calling attention to my sense of exclusion.
In the pretend-end of this story, I attend Professionals Weekend and let the thrill of personal validation carry me back into my cloistered comfort zone.
But I don’t want to be a special circumstance, and apologies, exceptions, or sympathetic expressions of horror don’t really change the realities we’re not talking about.
What “legitimate” playwright sets her professional sights on university productions? I hear the answer to this question every time an agent denies me the rights to produce—or even the opportunity to read—a play being considered for a professional venue. I get it. I’d want the same for one of my plays.
And, on the flip side, don’t universities often set their sights on professionally vetted plays? Even though I frequently hear the claim that universities are an ideal testing ground for new work, the reverse is often true, especially in high-octane programs whose graduates swell the ranks of nonprofits. If we’re not relying on the canon we were exposed to when we were in college (too many years ago), we’re looking for plays that have already earned the regional theatre stamp of approval.
Yes, I’m a teacher, and I have a responsibility to expose my students to the world they will likely encounter when they leave the university, the one they so often call the “real” world. Were I to attend College Days with them, I am confident they would benefit from seeing the plays and participating in workshops with the theatre’s talented staff. Attending with “my people” might also inject me with a bit of insider euphoria.
But who among us is satisfied with things as they are? What about our shared responsibility to envision the world as it could be?
As long as I’m an individual in this story, the cycle that separates people who should actually be working in tandem will keep repeating itself. Educators and Industry Professionals are now and will probably always be separate categories of people. To take a notion from Polly Carl's HowlRound article or Lydia R. Diamond’s reflections in her interview with Jesse M. Baxter, the rhythms of our worlds are fundamentally different. Much as I hate to admit it, I see the necessity of putting industry professionals at the center of the professional world and keeping educators on the sidelines.
And, yet. What if we could work the differences between us to our advantage? What if we were to embrace our respective identities as industry insiders and educational outsiders? Might we even benefit from indulging in the paradox that makes us all insider-outsiders?
Let me explain by way of Brecht.
(Yes, Brecht. The more apparently unconnected the ideas, the faster my heart beats.)
Brecht’s writing elevates the value of combining inside and outside perspectives to motivate action and change, offering us that ever-misunderstood technique, verfremdungseffekt. Perhaps you learned, as I did, to translate the term as the “alienation effect.” Or, perhaps you have jumped on the Tony Kushner bandwagon and campaigned for calling it the “distanciation” or the “estrangement effect,” as I have. The main difference between the “alienation” and “estrangement” camps is that we who profess—yes, profess—the latter reject the notion that Brecht calls for audiences to think rather than feel. In the “estrangement” model, Brecht’s work captures the paradox of the way distance from an event actually brings us closer to its center.
When I teach students about Brecht and the estrangement effect, I like to use an analogy I learned from a colleague in graduate school: Thanksgiving dinner during the first semester in college. We’ve been away from the table, and when we return, everything is basically familiar. And not. Suddenly, we see the family dynamics, the unhealthy relationships or patterns that have shaped us. We’re watching and experiencing the meal, simultaneously inside and outside of it, and I have trouble imagining anything more emotional and stimulating.
The main difference between the “alienation” and “estrangement” camps is that we who profess—yes, profess—the latter reject the notion that Brecht calls for audiences to think rather than feel.
When we’re inside an event, we experience it. When we’re outside, we watch it. But if the estrangement effect truly works in the theatre, as in life, we find ourselves forced to engage simultaneously with the inside and outside of a character’s experience. For example, Mother Courage simultaneously hooks our compassion and makes us mad. When we don’t know what to do with her inconsistent behavior and the unevenness of our reactions, we might fight our way out of the contradictions by broadening our perspective and asking why she acts as she does. In this light, we might see a woman whose very survival depends on her willingness to buy into an economic system that everyone complains about because it rewards vice and punishes virtue.
When I step back from my experience registering for the Humana Festival, I see a connection between Mother Courage and the person who ultimately decided educators could not be officially counted among professionals. That anonymous person—caught inside the realities of a system—has inadvertently hooked my compassion and made me mad.
I could respond as my students sometimes respond to Mother Courage, heeding the call of practicality and accepting the world as it is. But to do that would be to ignore the power of double vision that Brecht actually asks us to engage when he refuses to put endings on his best plays.
In class, this is where I like to talk about sex. Frustrated by unfinished endings? Right. Brecht exposes contradictions, sometimes drawing us inside the characters’ circumstances, sometimes pushing us out. Essentially, he makes us aware of ourselves as insiders and outsiders. Then he blue-balls us, so to speak, knowing we can’t possibly relax into the contradictions he exposes, relying on our compulsion to finish the job ourselves.
Brecht surely knew that, unlike his fictional Mother Courage, we live in an unscripted world; we are the ones with the power to change the circumstances that trap us. And the discomfort of double vision and incomplete endings might actually drive our problem-solving efforts in the world we create for ourselves.
In Brecht, I find a call for active, passionate thinkers. Artists. Educators. Insider-Outsiders. Powerful.
With that message as a mantra, we could embolden ourselves to let progress emerge from the uncomfortable exchange of energy in a room full of insiders and outsiders. But if those differences translate into separate conversations on separate festival weekends, then we’re merely segregating ourselves into disparate groups of insiders. Where’s the potential for progress in that?
This story is not yet over, but we have the power to author our own ending. I can keep pushing from the sidelines, and the leadership at Actors Theatre (and others like it) can decide that educators no longer have to attend industry events as exceptions to the rule.
We need only take advantage of our estrangement, make human contact, and allow ourselves to be present with each other in the moments to come. Together, we might even find a way to influence the future of new plays.
Anyone for dinner? I know a great Ethiopian restaurant around the corner from Actors Theatre.