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A New Year’s Diet for the Theater

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This year for the holidays my spouse and I traveled 2,700 miles by car with our nine-year-old yellow lab, Leo. We started in Boston, drove to St. Louis to visit our Italian relatives. Drove to Elkhart, Indiana, to visit our Italian relatives. Drove to Buffalo, New York, to visit our Italian relatives. Each time we stopped the car we were greeted with Abbondanza! Abundance was everywhere we went in the form of food, conversation, and kisses. And I know most of us overate this holiday season, but for the sake of this essay, I’ll argue Italians do that better than most. Turkey and ham are just side dishes for us that accompany meatballs, gravy, sausage, seafood, and massive quantities of antipasti—it’s necessary to get full before you even consider the main course.

Needless to say we all arrived back in Boston needing to trim down a bit, but what sticks with me from thirty-six hours of car time to contemplate 2014 is that word we kept shouting as a new dish was pulled from the oven or brought up from the downstairs refrigerator—Abbondanza! And that’s how we say it, with an exclamation point, and almost like a one-word song in the way we drag out each syllable.

And so I’m suggesting that we create a steady diet of theater Abbondanza! for 2014—and it wouldn’t be a new year if I didn’t offer a list for what that might look like.

1. This year let’s make fewer prescriptive lists that perpetuate thumbs up/thumbs down approaches to theater. These lists kill off the idea of abundance and suggest the beauty of theater rests in simple notions of good and bad. Elaine Scarry says in her book, On Beauty and Being Just, “Beauty takes place in the particular, and if there are no particulars, the chances of seeing it go down.” Let’s improve upon our chances of seeing beauty and broaden our definition of what constitutes the good.

2. Let’s create a more abundant sense of resources. I was struck this year with the competing nature of the end of year “ask.” HowlRound participated because we didn’t come up with a more creative way to fundraise. How can we fundraise in cohorts, in creative clusters? How can we create a less rivalrous environment around resources? We need an abundance of good ideas to solve this question.

3. Let’s be nicer this year. There is a growing critical edge to social media conversation that is beginning to wear on me. It’s reflected in the comments on HowlRound as we struggle to know how to manage less generous dialogue. Our theater community seems anxious to jump on the critique bandwagon and I’m personally seeing less creative solutions to the big problems facing our field. This is reflected in the “I” mentality of social media that values individual “thought leaders”—I sometimes wonder if thought leader is another name for egomaniac—in lieu of the “we” of collaborative entrepreneurship.

Snarky or Nice?

I have to stop at number three to digress for a bit about being nicer. HowlRound has been trying for awhile now to make the case for “positive inquiry” in our practice. Defining this has been a challenge and often dismissed as some kind of Polly(anna) notion that shies away from controversy. I’ve been thinking about this in relationship to Maureen Dowd’s recent op-ed in The New York Times in praise of snark. She argues:

Succumbing to uplift, edification and happy talk is basically saying that there’s something more important than telling the truth: not making enemies, not hurting people’s feelings.

All quarrels are not petty. Sometimes quarrels are about big things, and it’s an actual privilege to take a side in them.

I think key to her argument about truth telling depends on the sin committed that requires us to take a stand. Is, to use the language of Dowd’s op-ed, the work of art or the behavior we’re criticizing “pernicious,” does the production or the action have “deleterious consequences” on the social order or did the thought leader/critic/blog writer just not like it?

Jill Dolan does a nice job of making the case for the positive in a recent essay “Critical Generosity”:

The deleterious effects of criticism are underscored by mainstream writers such as Ben Brantley and Charles Isherwood in the New York Times, who revel in their power to destroy productions they don't like for reasons that are always political, as well as aesthetic, and always masked by the “objectivity” that power bestows on their work.

Against such entrenched practices and stereotypes, critical generosity stands as a refreshing and, I hope, principled alternative.

Back to the egomania of my number three. The singular desire to destroy or lift up, depending on your mood—this seems more pernicious to me than critical generosity.

This brings me to number four on the list:

4. Let’s pick our battles more wisely this year. There are pernicious things happening in our field. The work on our stages actually getting produced is rarely political enough to fit into the category of pernicious. More pernicious it seems to me are the questions of diversity and ethics that continue to plague our business. Are we selling tickets or are we contributing to the betterment of civilization? Are we propping up institutions or creating accessible and transformative art? Let’s tell the truth about these issues and let’s cause some controversy where the stakes are high.

 

Are we selling tickets or are we contributing to the betterment of civilization? Are we propping up institutions or creating accessible and transformative art? Let’s tell the truth about these issues

 

5. Let’s find ways to come together more often in three dimensions as a community in dialogue. We all argue that the intimacy and value of theater is a result of its three dimensionality. My diet will include more coffees this year, more effort to attend conversations in person, and more phone/Skype conversations in lieu of email and social media drive-bys.

I wish for all of you in 2014 that you feel the energy and warmth of Abbondonza! And for those of you who pass through Boston, let’s break bread over some gravy and meatballs, or at least share a cappuccino! Happy New Year from HowlRound!

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Sigh. You know Polly, didn't your mother ever tell you, "Don't pay too much attention to what other people think," or "Believe in yourself no matter what!" or "If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, etc. . ."? I mean, the people at HowlRound ARE over 21, aren't they? Just checking - oh sorry was that too snarky?

Abbodanza!
May your year grant you rewards for your every effort.

in re Thought leaders and personal snark:
I actually think that this stems from the dual nature of the medium. I've been called out on several occasions for not being uplifting or edifying enough in calling someone out when I thought I was complaining to my friends about an idiot I ran into that one time. There is an expectation of responsibility on my part because I have an audience.

There is no divide (particularly on Twitter) between the personal and professional and there is a reticence on the part of stakeholders in the conversation to bifurcate them. Because I don't *want* to hold my tongue and not complain about that idiot I just ran into even though people are listening and it's the right thing to do.

I actually have half a post written on this very thing as I try to figure out my year. Talk more soon.

Travis, thanks for this comment! And Happy New Year! I'd love to read your post on this topic or publish it on HowlRound if you're interested in that. I'm really at a loss these days to know how to participate in the Twitter conversation format. It feels like a sphere dominated by people who feel they know it all, and it doesn't feel like a place where listening happens. One of my worries is perfectly articulated in this post:

http://www.theatlantic.com/...

How much do thought leaders "not know" because so many who dominate the Twitter world speak from a very particular vantage point.

I agree wholeheartedly. I took most of a year off because the cycling of entrenched opinions on everything was so frustrating. There is so little desire to build anything or talk bright spots rather than take pot shots.
This year:
Separation of the discussion between market and art.
Creating space for others in our space - whatever that is.
Acceptance of our role in a community and reframing our personal narratives to eliminate the idea that we are post apocalyptic survivors of an art depending on our every choice to survive.

Thanks, Polly!

1. One thought is that perhaps moderating the topics could
help us as grow as a community- enabling us to see where we are starving or
over-fed in terms of what gets presented.
If we collectively become aware of the taxonomy that is emerging, we
could see which topics were over-active. HowlRound already has these in place- an
archive that helps us to see the landscape in terms of conversations, (thanks
to the tags Howlround has created in its archive) but I think we could use a
bit of help sorting this out. Moderators help us to be better conversationalists. If HowRound
mirrored the community, showing us where there is silence, and where we invest our energy, I
believe this could help us to become more aware of how we are shaping community.

2. I wonder whether structuring a protocol that helps people
to join in discussions might be one way of reducing the noise. If there is more lead-time that gives HowlRound time to encourage people to join any single conversation with an informed
viewpoint, and time spent asking community members to commit to discussions,
(even on a random basis) this could result in expanding topics that might
initially have less dimension and help the theatre community work more like a
commons. If we all were more committed to “THE” conversation and not “A” discussion, it could be
interesting. It’s only an experimental proposal, but if Howlround solicited 3-5 people to discuss any
given topic, this could build some community. Any one of the multiple pieces could become something greater, “greater,” meaning the topic might be opened up to the point where
more people could find a point of entry.

3. Is it just me, or is there an over-abundance of
commentary about theatre and a lack of Socio-cultural/political commentary
happening through the theatre aperture? I read a lot of articles about how a
single theatre strives to survive, when what I’d prefer is to hold discussions
about the real theatre of our time- the political struggles that result in the
cutting of food-stamps or a banker getting away scot-free after committing
crime. Where are the theatre discussions linking to these events? I truly
believe that some bold initiatives are called for. I am encouraging the theatre
community to reconsider the role of conversation within the community at large.
Some of the existing articles and criticism do delve into topics- one important
one being racism, but more connection to current events would be welcome.

I am completely dedicated to the underlying principles of
Howlround, but notice I am less interested in theatre. This is due in part to a
shift in priorities due to my situation of under-employment- and my solidarity
with others who struggle in a similar vein to secure housing, food and a living
wage, that makes life more urgent than theatre. My point is that I feel a big
disconnect from theatre because it feels distant from life. Despite my continued
belief that language constitutes action, I have come to see a need for intervention by
theatre professionals in real life events, in real time.

Abbodanza! May your year grant you rewards for your every effort.

in re Thought leaders and personal snark:I actually think that this stems from the dual nature of the medium. I've been called out on several occasions for not being uplifting or edifying enough in calling someone out when I thought I was complaining to my friends about an idiot I ran into that one time. There is an expectation of responsibility on my part because I have an audience.

There is no divide (particularly on Twitter) between the personal and professional and there is a reticence on the part of stakeholders in the conversation to bifurcate them. Because I don't *want* to hold my tongue and not complain about that idiot I just ran into even though people are listening and it's the right thing to do.

I actually have half a post written on this very thing as I try to figure out my year.

I'm so appreciative of this very thoughtful reply. I will be thinking about all three of your points and I so appreciate that you took the time to share them. I'm particularly moved by your sense of disconnect from the theater "because it feels distant from life" --I'm wondering if you might ever consider writing a HowlRound post about that?

Thanks so much for this post, Polly. I especially liked your second resolution regarding fundraising in new ways. Last week I was receiving 30 - 40 emails a day from various groups with count-downs telling me there were "x more days to give." I know that the fundraising gurus say that we should all do multiple fundraising emails during the week between Christmas and New Year's, but the truth is that the timing of the gift doesn't matter. People will get the same tax deduction if they give in January as December, they will just get the deduction in a different tax year.

Why are we giving the IRS so much power over our relationships with our supporters? Is the IRS pushing us into this annual year-end frenzy or are we doing it to ourselves? Maybe instead of competing with each other so fiercely during the holidays, we should be lobbying the IRS for changes in the tax code that would give people more incentives to give all year round.

Polly, thanks so much for this and for reminding us that we so often focus on what our field lacks -- money, audiences, diversity -- that we look past the enormous abundance. And thanks for #3. It does feel that there is a growing impulse to raise one's personal reputation by tearing down the work of others. Thanks for reminding us that we can tell the truth constructively and with compassion just as easily as we can shoot off the snarky barb - something that we would probably never say in that in-person, over coffee, three-dimensional conversation.

To an abbondanza of generosity in 2014!

Thanks for this comment Brad. I'm always surprised by how angry some people get when I call for more generosity in our field, I'm so glad #3 resonated for you. I think this business is difficult and devastating enough without tearing each other down. Hope we have a few three dimensional conversations together this year!

I always enjoy your musings. Thanks for another thoughtful, thought-provoking blog. On the last day of the classes that I teach, I end with giving my students my "Top Ten Tips for Life." The list morphs a bit each year, but so far has always included following The Golden Rule, -- "do unto others as you would have others do unto you.": Seems like that Rule, is the subtext in all of the items on your list.

Polly, I love #3... I've noticed that one can enjoy this snarky criticism because it's easier and fun in a sort of "I get to be witty and vent my frustrations" sort of way. What's actually more difficult (challenging) is to give nuanced critique, whether you like something or not. It's why I'm such a fan of the Liz Lehrman critical response! Thanks for this piece.

Polly, you've made my day! I'm longing for #s 4 & 5. How can I help? We need to be talking about #4 - and that's a dialogue that takes time - over a period of time - at least some of it in-person time (#5) - to share, explore, play, dream, vision, research, argue, experiment, assess, LEARN, (from mistakes as well as successes) and to paraphrase Nina Vance, 'claw the future out of the ground' and pioneer the 'sky hooks'. There are no 'models' for the future until we make them (Fichandler). If we want a future for not-for-profit theater different from the current trajectory, it's up to us to 'claw it out of the ground'. And the first minute of the future just became NOW!