Essay by

Getting Over Ourselves

Essay by

Getting Over Ourselves

TCG Conferences can bring out the “I” in me. I’ve been to many over the years and they never fail to dredge up some deep insecurities:

What am I doing here?
Should I go talk to him? She has no idea who I am.
What sessions should I attend?
What am I going to say? I have nothing to say.
Should I go to the plenary session or go lay down?
Why did I wear this stupid shirt?

At the TCG Conference 2011 held June 16–18 in Los Angeles we were all asked to consider What If? In this essay I’m going to ask, “What if we could get over ourselves?” What kind of TCG Conferences might be possible and what kind of future could we create for our field?



Clayton Lord in his terrific post in Arts Journal last week concluded after attending both TCG and American for the Arts Conference (AFTA) that getting over ourselves might mean:

the collapse of the hierarchical, monolithic arts organization not into dust, but into a flatter, brighter, airier, and more transparent facilitator.

I like these words “flatter, brighter, airier." I like imagining this future. And my attraction to these words rests in an awareness that I’m lighter and airier and more transparent when I unhinge from obsessing over myself and feel the buoyancy that community and shared sense of purpose can provide.

On the shoulders of giants
At the conference Todd London reminded us that we stand on the shoulders of giants (thanks James Still) as he recapped the origins of the American theater in the twentieth century. We rose to our feet in appreciation and pride in what brought us together on this day, on the fifty-year anniversary of TCG. For a moment we forgot about our personal agendas and felt a shared sense of our past and a glimpse of our future purpose together.

Earlier in the day, futurist David Houle had given us a sense of where we were headed. In this new world order that he has named the Shift Age, he asserted two things that stuck with me—the increased power of the individual to shape his or her reality, and the rise of the value of intellectual property in a culture where imagining the next transformative idea can lead to big payouts.

As the future and the past collided in the form of Houle and London, I ask: how could the “we” of our collective history ever survive in a future where the “I” of individualism rules the day and where the desire for accumulating property (though shifted from physical property to ideas) was still the driving force of our economy?


In the world of the fast-talking “I” we forget to give credit. We forget that people were thinking yesterday about things that feel urgent to us today.


I turn to my own futurist Lewis Hyde who has transformed my thinking on more than one occasion. Hyde’s most recent book, Common as Air: Revolution, Art and Ownership, traces the history of the rise of intellectual property in America. Hyde reminds us:

All that we make and do is shaped by the communities and traditions that contain us, not to mention by money, power, politics, and luck. And even should an artist or scientist think she has extracted herself from the world to stand alone in the studio, a tremendous array of mindsets may well attend her creativity.

Hyde persuasively claims that the past, present, and future of creative life are inextricably linked. That all of the individual creativity that drives us—all of our “I’s”—are informed by the giants who have come before us. But perhaps the shift is more about speed—the speed by which ideas are generated and decimated. The speed by which a glimmer of an idea becomes the next thing, the new thing, becomes the bandwagon we all jump on, the band instruments we play, the sounds we broadcast, the listeners listening—the “I’s” become instant cacophony and we can no longer locate where it all started. If all we remember is our own ideas, and if this new access to the means of production just allows the “I” of the individual to open its big fat mouth and insert itself wherever it damn well pleases in the form of blog postings, text messaging, tweeting, video, with no accountability to what’s come before, well that’s a problem.

In the world of this differently empowered “I” what is most quickly elided is the idea that we are an amalgamation of what’s preceded us. Speed makes it easy to forget.

In the world of the fast-talking “I” we forget to give credit. We forget that people were thinking yesterday about things that feel urgent to us today.

But if we’re willing to consider that there are few if any truly original ideas, and if most intellectual property is the result of the ideas that have preceded our “I”: what ideas can and should be owned?

Credit where credit is due
Every organization and individual needs an “I,” an identity. When I ran the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, I sought to brand it like any organizational leader. The identity for the PWC that made most sense to me at the time was to tell the story of impact on the field, to produce evidence of our relevance by clearly identifying our contribution to the work on stages around the country. It seemed the best way to make that case was to find ways to take credit and prove ownership like:

Playwright X developed that play here and it went to Broadway and won the Pulitzer and if it hadn’t been for the Playwrights’ Center…

Playwrights X, Y, and Z are Playwrights’ Center writers....

Of the twenty new plays produced this year, ten were developed at the PWC…. You get the gist. But the problems to this approach were many:

  1. It put the playwright in a strange relationship to the organization because every organization connected to a playwright is trying to do the same thing. Can you be a Playwrights’ Center playwright and a playwright of ten other organizations?
  2. Someone always gets left out of the credit game.
  3. Locating credit and origins usually perpetuates half-truths. When a bunch of us in the new play development world got together at the request and good thinking of Philip Himberg at Sundance and started to track back credit and origins we realized that many new plays and playwrights were affiliated with multiple play development centers.

The “I” of Institution can begin to look much like the “I” of Individual. Branding the identity of an organization can perpetuate the same notion of singularity—we rush to own ideas about making theater and we seek to own the art and the artist. But the “I” of our institutions reflects the same amalgamation of a shared history as the “I” of the individual.

I asked myself: should we go on telling these half-truths? Should we continue to ask playwrights to embrace our lie about how it all came to be? Our organizational “I’s” were more truthfully a “we” and we had all been contributing to the cultural commons in developing artists and new plays. Why weren’t we telling this story together?

I am also acutely aware that if I had said to funders, “Yeah, we do great things but so do a lot of other folks and let me tell you about them,” my message would not have been as compelling. We all traffic—funders included—in the “I” business.

The Cultural Commons
Can an age where individuals have found new ways to intervene and imagine lead to a greater sense of recognition about what we have in common? Couldn’t this heightened sense of our own power to intervene in the stories that get told actually lead toward a more connected sense of our shared history and identity? We share so much as a field:

  1. We share artists. Artistic life is a migratory business and many theater artists work across multiple institutions. They are a part of our cultural commons, the creative and intellectual life that gives our field its identity. We don’t own them.
  2. We share the work. We often produce work that our colleagues produce. Plays and devised work live in multiple institutions. The work or at least a piece of the work belongs to the cultural commons and a singular institution can only own it for so long. How long is too long?
  3. We share practices. We develop plays and ideas and artists and we use some common principles in our understanding of what constitutes best practices.
  4. We share ideas. TCG conferences are just one of the many places we congregate in the hopes of standing on the shoulders of giants. We learn from our colleagues so that every effort neither feels original nor requires starting from the beginning.

Trending together
To close the conference we had the opportunity to hear Julie Taymor talk publicly for the first time about the controversies surrounding the production of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. She articulated the problem with the production this way: “Twitter and Facebook and blogging just trump you. It’s very hard to create. It’s incredibly difficult to be under a shot glass and a microscope like that.” The Broadway audience focus groups interfered with Taymor’s vision. But the power of individuals to opine about anything and everything and send those opinions around the world didn’t just upend Spiderman—it messed with the Taymor’s TCG interview too. The interviewer wasn’t wearing socks and during the interview I got to watch #socks start trending from the audience (i.e., audience members listening to Taymor were tweeting with the appellation #socks. The hashtag organizes messages around keywords or topics). For better or worse, #socks is how I’ll remember that interview.

A meme
Vijay Mathew, the co-associate director of the American Voices New Play Institute, texted me at the end of the conference—“the meme of TCG 2011—generosity.”

If we are to share better it’s going to take a major change in—
How we think about ourselves.
How we think about our organizations.
How we think about intellectual property.

We’re going to have to be more secure in ourselves and believe in what we have to contribute as individuals and institutions. Sharing more will take us back to some of the impulses for building a not-for-profit theater; a belief in something more than exchange value—paid tickets in exchange for seats—as the purpose for our lives and missions.

This will demand a sea change in our practices—
Changing our relationship to what we think we own.
Changing how we define our institutions and our brand.
Changing our relationship to each other.

Sharing better will require a new generosity. It will require giving credit, sharing credit, and forgoing credit. It will require building new institutions and rebuilding old ones.

To my mind flatter, brighter, and airier will require reconstituted “I’s” with a deep passion for embracing the “we” of the future of the American theater. Perhaps trending #socks is more fun than listening to an interviewer drone on—and being involved in that kind of trending moment makes one acutely aware of the potential of the “we” of the future—the I’s can effectively trend together and create new ideas, new conversations, and new practices. But can we harness #socks into #IandWe? Can we accept the risk and embrace the opportunity to situate ourselves comfortably on the shoulders of giants for the sake of a future we have yet to imagine?

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Excellent writing, Polly. I am in the midst of making a play about(ish) me and my dad that was conceived with Tony Taccone; he wrote, and i directed. Who knows who owns this one. My dad? History? OSF? What? Who? No real answer. The clearest is no one and all of us, audience included. You've given me a lot to chew on. Thanks for providing this wonderful forum for discourse.

So many perspectives, and all indicate what many have been at for a while, many without access to credit for their creative form and content to the field. Many live the balance of both concern for community and the nurturing of the healthy ego necessary for the work, while being humble to the art, struggle and purpose.
We must use our heightened egos as 'tools of service' as well. Boldness is useful, for instance in informing funders. So what if they want to take credit in their way? Another question: Why is there resistance to funding for developing various creative ways marketing? We need the time and places to make and support work, and build audiences. Many if not most of us can't afford to be poor and starving, and yearn to continue making viable work.

Not to throw this all on the institutions, because there certainly is a great deal of unhealthy ego in the individual artist sector, but it seems part of the problem stems with corporations (and our big non-profit theaters function much like corporations these days) having the same rights (and more) as individuals. There is no We when the I (institution) decides to own or exclude the Little i's that make the We. Woooeeee too many vowels. Basically I agree with Polly. It would be nice if we stopped treating our institutions as individuals and instead as the tools of service they can so fantastically be.

I couldn't agree more with what you've said, Polly.

I think much of the tension around the need to either give or receive credit stems from artists' feelings [real or imagined] around getting paid for what we do. Sometimes, the only paycheck someone can afford to cut is one of gratitude and public recognition for work contributed. In that kind of limited cash environment, it becomes critical.

It's also a reality, even in the Creative Commons, that work is stolen and never attributed to its rightful owner. Sure, it's dog-eat-dog out there, but it still hurts when you've put time into something and someone else gets to take it all, without even saying thanks. That's Milkbone underwear right there.

And, I think as a field of thinkers and practitioners, we are guilty as anyone of hero worship. We reinforce it every time we give a standing ovation to a funder, and I think it just goes downhill from there. (I've been a program officer for a major foundation, so I can say that.) The minute you take the job, grantees treat you like the smartest, funniest person in the room. It smothers any candor in the discussion of the work at hand.I'm not saying our funders and donors aren't smart, good people - it's us - we're the ones that are putting them on a pedestal.

And just writing that, I'm thinking, "Ooooh, I really shouldn't say that about funders or I'll never work again."

So, if its going to change, it has to be a sea change. Let me know what I can do to help.

Candor is the greatest untapped resource within any institution and the failure to use it, in consideration of ideas, leads to systemic dysfunction. People pleasing becomes a waste of valuable energy and fails to support the useful truth it seeks. Great insight and I echo your sentiment in a willingness to see less hero-worship and more candor.

Wonderful post!

This is exactly how and why 2amt exists, for the sharing of ideas--and the communication--across the various layers of theatre, from TCG members to storefronts, from big cities to rural communities, from around the world even, often bringing together people who would have never connected otherwise.

And while we do generate ideas ourselves, we also act as a pointer to other ideas and as a springboard to develop and help those ideas evolve.

(You've also decribed exactly how I feel when I go to a conference. Don't tell anyone I said that.) (Oops.)

I'm thinking of those mighty ones among us who are shouldering the weight of the "hierarchical, monolithic arts organizations.." At what institutional age does the title (wave?) hit? When you step into the founder's shoes how much do you have to collect at Baggage Claim? All praise to those fit enough to carry on.Also, our art is right away institutional. You get a space to put on the play. You help me recall that as a migratory worker in theatres all over the place and world, it's always started with the playwright. That's who we await.

This tapped into the guilt that I feel in "claiming" a work as THE playwright. Ughh... always sounded too "I" for me... and for the necessary "we" of the life of a work - PRODUCTION.

Thank you, Polly, for this distillation. Moving from "I" to "we" is, to me, the great work of this next bit of time for the #newplay sector. I realize it's a been "true north" for me my entire life in theater, but now I feel so much a part of a community of people moving toward this "commons" that it's thrilling. At the same time I am very aware that this is a time-sensitive opportunity. The energy and resources of the sector today are impermanent, the attention of the programs, press, funders, and audiences is fickle and will move away from us soon, and if we only capture advancement for our individual careers and livelihoods we will have failed those coming along behind us. We stand on the shoulders of giants largely because, collectively, they captured something lasting and substantive enough that it can bear our weight. What base will we present for the next feet to plant on?

To your point on telling the stories of others effectively, I have a powerful "sense memory" of the moment that Olga Garay broke through my alienated, persecuted funk at the Portland gathering in 2002 by asking me "who else is here who focuses primarily on the development of new plays? Who would you want to be hearing from right now?" And I fumbled around a bit. Todd London was already a hero and he was there. And Robert Blacker was still with Sundance and he was there. And I knew of PWC though you and I hadn't really met. I ticked off maybe six total. She said to me right there: "Well, if it's only six, that's not a sector. And if you can't tell us who is doing this work and why it matters, we cannot help you." The exchange led directly to the New Play Map, btw, a decade later, but it taught me that I had to be prepared to tell the stories of others if I wanted the artists and ideas I was there to discuss to get taken seriously. I don't think it has ever cost me to tell the stories of others compellingly and with generosity.

And you, and Todd London (again) effectively told the story of all the play labs to the extent that the Mellon Foundation took up that question of "who is there and how can we help" two years later. In fact, that desire led directly to the field study and to Gates of Opportunity, to the summit that Sundance convened, and ultimately to the Institute and the space for this journal!

I'm glad you are pointing people to Clayton Lord's piece. I hope people will read and wrestle with the comments there, as D. W. Jacobs, in particular, is connecting the current conversation to that which has preceded it in a way that Hyde would appreciate.

Feet on shoulders, shoulders to the wheel, and into the future we climb.

"I don’t think it has ever cost me to tell the stories of others compellingly and with generosity."

It has always confused me to think otherwise. Again, this leads me to Polly's comments on taste - if you know, can discuss, and support other worthy organizations that are - to borrow from Diane's recent articles - doing good and excellent work, that reflects well upon you. It makes you more trusted. Someone people will return to, pay attention to.

I think that as we talk about the transparency of these new forms of institutions, what we'll see is that they're becoming connectors and facilitators for artists, funders, etc. Places that can find an artist with a good idea and connect them with collaborators who are interested in similar ideas and funders who take an interest in that kind of work. As well as people with physical resources and connections for those they don't have.

At least, that's what I hope.

Lewis Hyde's book on intellectual property that you cite -- "Common as Air: Revolution, Art and Ownership" -- next up on this gal's reading list.

Inspirational and generous post to begin the week.