A New Year’s Diet for the Theater
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!