Essay by

This Is It!

Essay by

This keynote address was delivered on March 25, 2013 at The Cohen New Works Festival presented by the University Co-op at University of Texas-Austin. Watch it here.

 

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There’ve been times in my life
I’ve been wondering why
Still sometimes I believed
We’d always survive

Now I’m not so sure
You’re waiting to hear
One good reason to try
But what more can I say?
What’s left to provide?

You think that maybe it’s over
Only if you want it to be
Are you gonna wait for your sign, your miracle?
Stand up and fight

(This is it)
Make no mistake where you are
(This is it)
Your back’s to the corner
(This is it)
Don’t be a fool anymore
(This is it)
The waiting is over
Lyrics from Kenny Loggins’ “This Is It.”

I like to think of being asked to give a keynote as a “this is it,” moment. The waiting is over, don’t be a fool anymore, your back’s to the corner. And like Lorrie Moore’s choreographer character in her brilliant short story, “Dance in America,” tells us,

I make this stuff up. But then I feel the stray voltage of my rented charisma, hear the jerry built authority in my voice, and I too believe. I’m convinced.

I hope in this brief moment we share, that I can call forth my own rented charisma, that I can convince you that “this is it” right now. For Kenny Loggins, “this” is the precipice of love, will it survive? Will Loggins be able to coax his lover back, get her to choose him one more time in this moment where’s there’s no turning back.

In the next several minutes as I wind my way through Lorrie Moore’s story, the culture wars, and my own definition of civilization, I want you to think about this moment. This is it. The moment before we enter a festival of new works, the moment before you as students share yourselves and your art. This is it for you. There’s no turning back. The festival will begin.

Now back to Lorrie Moore’s story: the protagonist in “Dance in America” is an aging dancer and choreographer currently in Nebraska where she has come to spend two weeks in the schools to do workshops with students. She decides to spend her last night of her artist residency with her old friend Cal who she hasn’t seen in ten years. He and his wife Simone live in what was once a frat house on the campus where Cal teaches and they have a seven-year-old son Eugene who has cystic fibrosis and a short-term prognosis.

And in a story that for me holds in balance every tension around the value of art in our culture, Eugene embodies in his wheezing and hunched body the very problem with insisting that art is essential to life. If people are sick, dying, hungry, and being tortured in war, how can we possibly make time and money for art? Our understanding of what it means to survive defines our political priorities and our love songs.

In 1993 when Lorrie Moore published “Dance in America” the stakes of the “this” in “this is it” were nothing less than the cultural value of art in America. This life or death moment made manifest in the waning body of a seven-year-old. Should we fund science and art? By 1995 the culture wars that Moore is responding to will result in the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts being cut from 162 million to 99 million. The individual artist fellowship program will be eliminated, perhaps the very program funding our dance choreographer’s residency in Moore’s story.

And Cal in our story speaks as an echo to the voices of the US congressman who will be responsible for this shift in arts funding—the congressman who made sure when they won the culture wars, that civilization as defined by the United States government cannot make room for the pornographic photography of Robert Mapplethorpe or Andres Serrano’s Christ on a crucifix covered in the artist’s urine. As Cal and our choreographer take a walk around the neighborhood before their dinner with Simone and Eugene, he argues,

It’s not that I’m not for the arts, You’re here—money for the arts brought you here. That’s wonderful. It’s wonderful to see you after all these years. It’s wonderful to fund the arts. It’s wonderful; you’re wonderful. The arts are so nice and wonderful. But really—I say, let’s give all the money, every last fucking dime, to science.

We hear the urgency in Cal’s voice, the panic—if we don’t fund science with enough support right now, my son will die. Who gives a damn about artist residencies!

Civilization and Its Discontents
The NEA was founded in 1965 on the idea that a country’s greatness must be in part determined by its commitment to the arts, the NEA in its original statement of purpose declares:

A high civilization must not limit its efforts to science and technology alone but must give full value and support to the other great branches of man’s scholarly and cultural activity.

These words are a direct echo of the words of John F. Kennedy, who sowed the early seeds of the NEA at the start of his presidency:

The life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of a nation, is very close to the center of a nation’s purpose…and is a test of the quality of a nation’s civilization.

Moore’s choreographer is shaping civilization as artists do. She is working with fourth graders in Eugene’s school. She has her students invent a character then make a mask, and she leads them in a dance that she choreographs to the tune of Kenny Loggins’ “This Is It.” Before dinner she shows Eugene a video of the classroom performance. Eugene, only in the third grade, idolizes his older schoolmates. He’s completely captivated by the video, and when it finishes, he says confidently, “That was a really wonderful dance…it’s colorful and has lot’s of fun, interesting steps.” But as Eugene utters these words, we wonder if he’ll make it to fourth grade.

The  “this” in Moore’s “this is it” is civilization and as Cal so clearly articulates it, art is wonderful but not essential to “this”—certainly not essential to Eugene. And when did we as a field, the field of not-for-profit theatre around the country lose sight of theatre as a function of civilization? When did we become like Cal in prioritizing survival over shaping civilization? This is something I think about and write about all of the time. When did we shrink our field to becoming like a science, a science of marketing data and techniques to sell tickets at ever higher prices, to ever less diverse demographics? When did we decide that the most important thing about our work and our contribution to civilization was perpetuating our individual survival, or the singular survival of our theatre or our academic training silo?

As those of you in this room think about your role in shaping civilization in the years to come, you will be like Moore’s choreographer, renting charisma on a regular basis and making a case for why theatre matters. And you will have to define “this” for yourself.

And here’s the single biggest barrier in my mind to defining “this” for the theatre. And I’m going out on limb here, struck by a stray voltage from my own words, the most complicated part in making a case for your art and your theatre will be to understand what part of what you’re doing belongs to you and what part belongs to civilization. As a practitioner you will spend a lot of time with your individual sense of things. You’ll define your aesthetic, your voice, and your vision for the work. And the more you define it, the more confident you’ll become in what I call the “I” of your practice. I see it this way. I like this play. I think we should produce this play or this season. You risk becoming obsessed with your own survival. You risk forgetting about civilization.

 

The most complicated part in making a case for your art and your theatre will be to understand what part of what you’re doing belongs to you and what part belongs to civilization

 

And there’s nothing worse than showcasing your work at a festival and bringing in professionals to witness, to bring out the worst of the “I” in a theatre artist. Trust me. We can “I” ourselves to death in this environment. Your “I” will wonder what I think. And I will think what I think represents something bigger. And if I’m not careful I might start to think I’m civilization. No really, there are artistic leaders out there who think their visions represent civilization. Those leaders who forget to add women to their seasons, and can’t find any plays by people of color worth producing.

And Moore’s protagonist considers the problem of her own narcissism, the dancer obsessed with every nuance of her body. Over dinner with Cal, Simone, and Eugene, they talk about the past. Cal asks if she is still with Patrick, her lover when Cal last knew her. She tells us that they broke up, and her mind wanders briefly from the dinner conversation,

All I can think of is how Patrick, when he left, fed up with my “selfishness,” said that if I was worried about living alone in the lake house…I should just rent the place out—perhaps to a nice lesbian couple like myself.

Get it? She is her own lesbian couple, in love with herself. And we’re back where we started. Is art a vanity project? Or is it essential to civilization?

And of course I’m here because I believe the latter, that “this” thing called the imagination can save us from our narcissism—that scarcity mentality that can drive us to believe our individual survival and success is the most important thing.

“Dance time, dance time,” Eugene shouts at the end of dinner. We learn that every evening ends this way, Eugene and family dance until he tires and falls asleep. Tonight our choreographer picks the music. Knowing how much Eugene liked the video of the classroom dance lesson, she puts on Kenny Loggins’ “This Is It.” They all begin to dance. Then Eugene tires and sits down to watch the adults. Our choreographer goes to Eugene,

“Come here honey,” I say, going over to him. I am thinking not only of my own body here.…I am not, Patrick, thinking only of myself, my lost troupe, my empty bed. I am thinking of the dancing body’s magnificent and ostentatious scorn: this is how we offer ourselves, enter Heaven, enter speaking. We say with motion, in space, This is what life’s done so far down here, this is all and what and everything it’s managed—this body, these bodies, that body. So what do you think Heaven, What do you fucking think?”

“Stand next to me,” I say and he does, looking up at me with his orange warrior face. We step in place: knees up, knees down. Knees up, knees down. “This is it! This is it!” Then we go wild and fling our limbs to the sky.

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A. Mazing. Love this. But you have stuck Kenny Loggins in my head now, dammit. Those UT students were lucky to hear you.