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.

Click.

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.

a book cover
The cover of the collection of the 41st Humana 
Festival of New American Plays.
Photo by Actors Theater. 

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.

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I don’t really have anything to add to the conversation but just wanted to say that this essay went in delightfully unexpected directions. I love how you took the micro to talk about the macro. Fascinating.

Diane, thank you for the post & for inspiring the discussion. Across the board, these kinds of power / art bargains, made consciously or unconsciously are so crashingly un-unique. As an actor, I'd kill to work at Louisville, & maybe one day I will be asked -- but surely only after three "names" turn down the part I'm right for. Well, I'm working up hope that perhaps I might be asked to perform on the College Days.

Wonderful post and discussion. I am with Actors Theatre and really care about how we influence these issues so thanks to all of you who have posted for sharing your experience. We do value the participation of all people who work in the ecology of theatre and see the importance of the connections you state. Teaching is a hugely important part of our work and culture too – it infuses our day-to-day life really with our apprentice/intern program. Our primary goal
with the Humana Festival is to fully produce new plays and help them to have a
future life – whatever path that may be – so we focus on getting as many people
as possible to Louisville each year to see these plays. Your feedback, Diane, from this past year’s festival was quite helpful, so thanks for restating in this article. Last year was our first year to actually be able to offer online registration, and this year we have been able to upgrade our technology and expand the options of how you are guided when you register for the festival – so when it goes live this week you’ll see some of your suggestions implemented! However, it will not be perfect and we will continue to solicit feedback and evolve.

We also focus on creating an environment at the festival that fosters developing connections between attendees outside of the plays, with many events and opportunities for conversation. I am pretty impressed with what we do in this arena but always welcome ideas and feedback on how to improve those opportunities and thinking. We added the college weekend almost ten years ago in response to requests for access for students and professors. Just about six years ago we opened up the options for any person working in theatre – whether that is with a specific company, school, agency, or as a freelance artist, educator, producer, agent, or other – to attend any of the weekends that worked best for their schedule. Because the entire festival schedule is likely confusing to someone who is new to it, we still try to guide people to weekends based upon what we think would be most useful for them. Our best way to navigate this remains a person-to-person conversation and we remain committed to interacting with people directly.

We are grateful to everyone who comes to the Humana Festival and champions these new plays and the playwrights. See you in a few months!

Jennifer, as ever, you're one of my theatre heroes. Even though I don't find myself in Diane's position (I actively attend in my "professional" guise), I so appreciate your response here, and your articulation of the process ATL is in the midst of. Transparency from our largest institutions is helpful for the field on all levels, and ATL is often a model in this respect. The more that all of us together can demystify the processes of access (whether that's ticketing, or auditions, script selection, or whatever) the healthier we all are.

Excellent piece, and well-written!

This brings to mind the old adage 'Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach.' There is a level of mutual distrust that those who are purely professional and those who are purely academic often have of each other. Professionals consider academics either to be washouts or to have their heads firmly in the clouds. Academics consider professionals to have their eye focused on the bank account, with little regard for artistic excellence.

Then, in the middle, are those of us who try to straddle both worlds. We're deeply committed to the process of making theatre and the sustained viability of it as an art form (including financial and creative solvency). That's educational and professional work. We do both.

I've found that while most people seem to understand the idea of a person who works professionally and academically, the theatre world doesn't. Professionals tend to look down their noses at me because I teach (except for some Production Managers, who recognize that my university salary subsidizes the low fees they offer, but that's another story). So, to keep it simple, when I'm out in the theatre world and I meet a new person or register for a conference, I'm just a designer. Not a professor.

Thanks, Vincent. For me, the process of writing this article actually helped me understand that I'm less interested in having people see me as an "industry professional" and more interested in embracing my role as a professor—as long as I don't feel as if I have to hide that part of my identity in order to engage in truly professional conversations.

If I were applying for a job (other than as a teacher), I would do exactly the same. When I say I want to embrace my role as a professor, I mean I want to do it in places such as the Humana Festival (or even TCG), where people participate in the process of reflecting on current circumstances and envisioning the future of our field as a whole.

Let me start by quoting Brecht: "It is not enough to demand from the theatre mere perceptions, mere images of reality. The theatre must arouse our desire to perceive, it must organize the fun of changing reality. Our audience must not only hear how the chained Prometheus is freed; it must also school itself in a desire to free him."

Whether educator or industry professional, we are all in the business of coaxing audiences to want to engage and to know how they might do it. This is a sacred pursuit, an evolutionary good. To presume that theatre practitioners should be segregated according to a taxonomy of professional importance is not only an arrogance but also a disaster for the adaptations required for the twenty-first century.

Thank you, Diane, for pointing out those invalid distinctions that undermine the advancement of a substantial mode of human discourse.

Hello, Diane. The quotation is from "A Short Organum for the Theatre," first published in 1949 and then republished in 1953. Brecht claimed it as "a description of a theatre of the scientific age." What's interesting to me is that only six years later, C.P. Snow decried the bifurcation of western intellectual life in his lecture on the "Two Cultures"—sciences and humanities—which is a schism yet to be healed (although growing interest by artists in cognitive science is reason to be optimistic.)

Then I think on the unnecessary divisions within our own art, the art of the theatre, and I feel discouraged again.

I am based in Southern California and would welcome the opportunity to share with you my hopes for the future.

I am endlessly fascinated by the way we all misinterpret some of theatre's most inspiring manifestos. I think that's why I'm so fixated on the inside/outside paradox. When we limit ourselves to the "inside," we see what we want to see when we're ready to see it. In this state, I sometimes encounter inspiring texts and let grains of truth expand into THE truth. Distance in the only guard against that trap, but I'm also not satisfied to just sit back and say or do nothing in the moment I think I understand something.

That said, I really believe we have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable to our own inconsistencies. Again, I feel as if I'm living inside a paradox: I'm not some superhuman who doesn't get completely discouraged when I make mistakes; but, I also know I can't see all angles simultaneously, and that drives my optimism about the dance we do as we realize our best option is to listen to each other. Always and forever. We just have to forgive ourselves for existing in a series of single moments driven by our desire to hold onto a past we'll never fully understand and a future we can't possibly predict.

There I go, getting all mystical. But I can name a lot of plays that confront that very dilemma...

I am often in Southern California, and so we may very well meet there one day. Or, perhaps, someday, you'll find yourself in Southern Indiana. Wouldn't it be great to get a "hospitality club" for artists set up?

You say "But I can name a lot of plays that confront that very dilemma..." and immediately Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" springs to mind.

As to the vulnerability you mention, I am rediscovering it through my work with young people at Center Theatre Group. We are positioning a "Student Ambassadors" program to train young artists in leadership skills, but I find I gain most when I let THEM lead ME.

Please let me know when next you are in Los Angeles and we shall find like-minded questioners to inaugurate the club you have proposed.

Diane, I feel you. Man do I feel you. I have made my life as an artist/educator for going on 7 years now, to greater and lesser frustration. It's only in the last few years that I've found the balance that allows me to see the professional work and the professing as a healthy feedback loop: my professional work makes my teaching better, which makes my professional work better, and all of it is my "art." Tellingly, the theatre I work with has a staff that overwhelmingly participates in teaching (at all levels) as the day job that allows us to do our professional work outside of the classroom.

These words of yours in particular struck me:
"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."

I teach a contemporary drama class; we work on texts 1990 to (very) present moment. I make it a regular practice to bring in scripts that are in development, or about to premiere -- always with the permission of the playwright -- that I've discovered while wearing my "professional dramaturg" hat. My students, all about to graduate, acquire a working knowledge of who's creating the plays *right now* that thrill them. They'll be able to walk into an internship interview and when asked "what contemporary playwrights do you like," they'll be able to say someone other than Sarah Ruhl. (No knock on Sarah, whose work I love, but so do 80% of young theatre makers.) More times than I can count, my recent grads have ended up in projects by the same writers they studied with me -- writers maybe just 5 older than my alums. Or they've sought out those writers through mutual contacts and have gone on to direct or produce those works. Just yesterday, I contacted two former students in their first year out of school. They're in New York, and I can't get down there in time to see a show I need to be scouting for my professional job. Knowing that they're savvy, and that I trained them (so I know how they look at new work), I offered to buy their tickets if they'd write something up for me. The piece is by a writer we read in that Contemp class, so I know my former students have the context necessary to do well in this opportunity. I also know that it's a chance to put these young, fabulous artists in contact with a writer who's a long time friend of mine. Maybe something will come of it. At the very least, I'm reminding these emerging artists that they have the power to seek out thrilling work, make connections, and run with it. What more is there?

This is SO IMPORTANT, and I am so glad you took the time to write this piece for HowlRound. In bringing the new play sector into contact with student artists, we are helping to forge the American theatre of the future -- one that has equal opportunities for voices at the margins as well as the center.

Yes, I agree that we have a responsibility to bring the new play sector into contact with our students. As you know, I have a few opinions about the need for including educators in the ongoing conversations about the National New Play Database. But, as I wrote this article, I found that I had to press myself to examine why I'm not satisfied with the College Days option, which would ultimately help me achieve that purpose.

So right. I agree with you - there's a difference between being part of college days, and being "at the table" of the industry weekend -- and not just because of how ATL's structure sees you. It's also an opportunity to meet and connect with other nationally based theatre professionals, which is an important piece of being an educator who brings the new play sector into the classroom.

Love this piece, Diane. I had a similar situation come up when looking at registration for TCG's Audience (R)Evolutions conference coming up in Feb. 13. My dept. is a member of TCG but I couldn't find it listed as a "member theater" who were being solicited for attendance as follows: "To ensure a focused and results-oriented Convening, TCG will identify participants whose work and experience reflect best practices and forward-thinking for the field at large." When I queried about our absence I was told to select "non-TCG member theatre" and register with my university affiliation if they were supporting my attendance OR "apply as an individual."

So I think here's another circumstance where "educators" are being divided from "professionals" in a way that seems short-sighted even if we want to account for the very different pressures on audience development in university vs regional vs independent theaters. If we aren't all in the room together talking about both material *and* theoretical considerations/construction of that term "audience" it seems fundamentally counter-productive. I'd been pondering whether to just bag my interest and forgo applying to the conference, but your column reminds me there's a productive power in estrangement but only if one dwells in it versus avoiding it. So if I can swing the financing, I'm going to apply and see what happens. If I can get a seat at that Thanksgiving table (to borrow your metaphor), I look forward to being inside and outside of that experience.