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Notes on Generosity in the Theater

Essay by

My vocation changed everything: the sword-strokes fly off, the writing remains; I discovered in the belles-lettres that the Giver can be transformed into his own Gift, that is, into a pure object. Chance had made me a man, generosity would make me a book.”
—Jean-Paul Sartre

These are the words that open the third chapter, “The Labor of Gratitude,” of Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift—a must read for any artist. Last week I spent a lot of time thinking about generosity. I don’t think there’s enough of it in this field and I was reminded of its transformative power as I grappled with the unexpected and untimely loss of a mentor and friend. In that moment of stunned sadness I considered the many gifts this lovely man had given me and wondered about how I might best honor his example.

 

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Hyde talks about a long and cross-cultural tradition of threshold gifts, gifts that we give at moments of transformation in our lives—baptismal celebrations, wedding gifts, funeral flowers. In these moments of transformation when we move from one threshold to the next, when we transform ourselves to join in union with another, for example—when we marry—we let go of a part of ourselves, and the gifts we receive acknowledge what we give up in order to move forward—“they guide us to a new life, assuring our passage away from what is dying.” It’s hard to tear ourselves away from what we’ve known, to leave behind where we’ve been, so difficult to embrace transformation and new life. It’s why we don’t leap willy nilly into marriage and struggle to accept the inevitability of death.

In the theatre, I experience this fear in the scarcity mindset that is prevalent in much of the conversations that shape our field. Perhaps it’s easy for me to point this out as I sit in the midst of abundance most days, lucky to have infrastructure and means to accomplish the work I am passionate about. But I, too, am prone to the scarcity approach to the work, the ominous sense that there is only so much opportunity out there and that the circumference of the pie is finite and the pieces we divide among ourselves limited. As artists we compete for gigs, attention, recognition, patronage, and opportunities. As organizations we compete for funding, contributions, and audience. As a field we compete to be relevant. We are competing for credit, position, and power, even if we’re uncomfortable admitting it, even if we have no taste for blood sports, we are all playing the game. And this competition for our piece of the action can make us all feel victimized by a poverty of the imagination that there just isn’t enough to go around. The scarcity mentality relies on victims to flourish.

Certain stories that we tell ourselves over and over rely on the idea that there isn’t enough. These are some scarcity narratives in the theatre: The story that plays are developed to death rather than produced. The story that artists are at odds with institutions. The story that nonprofit theatre is beginning to merge with commercial theatre. The story that pits playwrights against directors and directors against dramaturgs and everyone against artistic directors. These are all narratives driven by a feeling of lack—lack of respect, lack of understanding, lack of appreciation. How do we cross a new threshold? How can we start to re-imagine new stories?

 

As theatremakers how can we better create the conditions for generosity—where threshold stories can be told and transformations can occur? How can we avoid becoming the “done-for dead?”

 

In Hyde’s book he contends, “market exchange will always seem inappropriate on the threshold.” When I read this, I know why nonprofit (versus commercial) theatre is where I’ve decided to maintain my focus. If art is, as I believe it to be, a gift that transforms our lives and transports us from death to life, then the transactional nature of making art will always be an ill fit. It’s why we bristle at high-priced theatre tickets and huge disparities between the lowest and highest paid staff in arts institutions. We’re products of a market-driven culture but gifts in moments of transformation supersede the forces of the market. Making art falls somewhere in between commerce and transformation. “A man who would buy and sell at the moment of change…will be torn apart. He will become one of the done-for dead who truly die. Threshold gifts protect us from such death.” As theatremakers how can we better create the conditions for generosity—where threshold stories can be told and transformations can occur? How can we avoid becoming the “done-for dead?”

Here are some thoughts:

  1. Regardless of where you are in your career as a theatremaker, seek to mentor. Recognize that you have a responsibility to foster the passions and dreams and aspirations of others and there is almost always someone who has less experience in this business than you. As Hyde says, it’s only when we release our own gifts do they become ours—it’s in the giving that potential is actualized. Generosity transforms us into artists. To be an artist is a becoming not a being.
  2. Once the gift has stirred within us it is up to us to develop it.” I have articulated Hyde’s sentiment over the years telling artists to become their own arts administrators. No agent, artistic director, or advocate of any kind will make your career for you. Give yourself the gift of access to the means of production. Learn how to raise money and manage budgets. Strategize ways to connect with institutions and other artists you admire. I believe the more control you have over your own career, the more generous you’ll feel.
  3. If you run an arts organization, drop what you’re doing immediately and create an ethics statement. Every organization has a mission statement but the nonprofit arts organization requires an ethical approach. Answer the hard questions, such as what is a responsible spread between the lowest and highest paid person in the organization, inclusive of artists and administrators? Make a clear accounting of the intersection and collision between commercial and nonprofit interests. What values does your organization hold sacred and are you willing to make them transparent? Are you willing to engage honest and open communication as you shape and prepare to live by this statement? Honesty and openness are forms of generosity.
  4. Take the long view. “For the slow labor of realizing a potential gift the artist must retreat to the Bohemias, halfway betweens the slums and the library, where life is not counted by the clock and where the talented will be sure they will be ignored until that time, if it ever comes, when their gifts are viable enough to be set free and survive in the world.” If you take the risk of exercising your gift, you must acknowledge the truth that it may never be recognized and that lack of recognition doesn’t take away from your identity as an artist, and it’s not a reflection on the quality of the art you make. The long view will give you endurance and protect you from the poison cloud of bitterness that hovers in close proximity to the life of the artist. Bitterness is the enemy of generosity.
  5. Don’t read reviews. I mean this. Really. Don’t read your reviews. Compliments are a pleasant distraction but I bet you can find more meaningful kudos from trusted colleagues. Negative reviews will never be constructive because they are just too damn personal. You’ve made something. It’s a reflection of your deepest passions and pains and then you must give it away to this unknown entity called an audience. Who are they? And what gives them the right to criticize your work? Of course they have every right to their opinions, but these random criticisms will only hinder your evolution as an artist. It’s simply impossible not to perseverate over every hint of unkindness coming from some unknown, usually disembodied voice. Random criticisms from strangers eat away at you. The fewer things that eat away at your creative energy, the more productive you will be, the more likely you will have energy for others, the less likely you will be to compare your reviews with those of your colleagues.
  6. Get over the myth of entitlement. No one owes you anything in this business or in life. The surest way to feeling victimized is to feel owed and to feel owed is to be at a deficit. Deficits leave you with nothing to give. “The Gift is not merely the witness or guardian to new life, but the creator.”

In my very darkest days at the Playwrights’ Center, of which there were more than a few in the early going, I felt consistently at a deficit, victimized by other people who felt victimized—it was such an ugly cycle. But I was lucky because I had mentors who were wiser and smarter and more generous than I. One of those was Tom Proehl, my friend who passed away last week. He was on my board of directors and he was sage beyond his years. I feel certain that one year I called him three hundred times and every phone call was received with attention and warmth. Tom always had time. He understood deeply how arts organizations function, he was compelled to share his gift. He always encouraged me to take the high road, to see the good in people and the hope in hopeless situations. He propped me up and he stood by me. He’s one of a handful of people who have compelled me to be a better person than perhaps my nature left to its own devices would accommodate. This article, my wish for greater generosity in a field of tremendous abundance, is my labor undertaken in gratitude for the gift received.

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Wonderful and wise.

My producer and I will be discussing many of the points you've raised -to great effect I hope!

Thank you Polly.

I've worked in a generous theatre culture (Argentina), a theatre culture less so (France) and now I'm based in the UK (many would and do complain, but we've got a pretty fantastic system in place). I enjoyed (and am inspired by) your essay very much. I'll forward it on to fellow theatre makers as it was forwarded to me.

My own personal exploration into generosity is that I'm slowly moving to a point where my rehearsal process is open to all comers, i.e. absolutely anyone (artists, directors, designers, the general public) can come and watch and be a part of the rehearsal room at any time.

it does change the dynamic but so far so fascinating... definitely something i want to keep on exploring and developing.

Thanks again and thank you Rachel Parish, another inspiration (and my link sender).

May we all continue to inspire each other.

Daniel x

Daniel Goldman (UK)Tangram Theatre Company & CASA Latin American Theatre FestivalArtistic Director

At the end of The Gift, Hyde quotes Neruda on the gift of an artistic life: "I have been a lucky man. To feel...the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses -- that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our beings, and unites all living things." When there seems to be a scarcity of ready recognition, it helps to remember that we are writing for that widening and that unity.

Thank you, sir, for stirring my thoughts with so beautiful a statement of grace and sincerity. I am a brand-new member of the theater world, and I am wholly reliant upon generosity of many kinds. Most especially, I rely on other's generosity in bringing experience to bear where words are often not enough.

Thank you, thank you, thank you...

The below poem, by Rumi, is dedicated to your mentors, and you:

SUBLIME GENEROSITY

I was dead, then alive.Weeping, then laughing.

The power of love came into me,and I became fierce like a lion,then tender like the evening star.

He said, ‘You’re not mad enough.You don’t belong in this house.’

I went wild and had to be tied up.He said, ‘Still not wild enoughto stay with us!’

I broke through another layerinto joyfulness.

He said, ‘Its not enough.’I died.

He said, ‘You are a clever little man,full of fantasy and doubting.’

I plucked out my feathers and became a fool.He said, ‘Now you are the candlefor this assembly.’

But I’m no candle. Look!I’m scattered smoke

He said, ‘You are the Sheikh, the guide.’But I’m not a teacher. I have no power.

He said, ‘You already have wings.I cannot give you wings.’

But I wanted his wings.I felt like some flightless chicken.

Then new events said to me,‘Don’t move. A sublime generosity iscoming towards you.’

And old love said, ‘Stay with me.’

I said, ‘I will.’

You are the fountain of the sun’s light.I am a willow shadow on the ground.You make my raggedness silky.

The soul at dawn is like darkened waterthat slowly begins to say Thank you, thank you.

Then at sunset, again, Venus graduallyChanges into the moon and then the whole night-sky.

This comes of smiling backat your smile.

The chess master says nothing,other than moving the silent chess piece.

That I am part of the ploysof this game makes meamazingly happy.

I'm an actor just about to graduate with my MFA. Having just gone through the wringer of Hollywood in our post-showcase phase, I've had to constantly remind myself of my passion and my commitment to the integrity of the work.

As I embark on both commercial and artistically-fulfilling careers, this article has breathed new life into my passion and has empowered me to continue my own work at whatever pace it needs. Thanks for the renewal.

Your thoughtful words are an inspiration; a wonderful tribute to Tom Proehl. I am Tommy's oldest cousin, sharing the maternal Walstrom heritage. I had the grace of sharing the growing up process with Tommy. I know this is exactly what would and will give him joy. Thoughtful consideration not only of the creative process, but the ethics involved, and how we can sustain and nourish each other. His spirit was bright and full of wisdom, patience, and joy. Thank you for continuing to carry on and spread the light he shared with you. I am re-posting this on facebook for his family, and also for my many creative friends illumination.Nancy NeidtSt. Paul, Minnesota

As the founder of a musician-run string quartet, this post rings SO TRUE for me! It makes me smile to think about all the organizations who have provided us with mentorship, support and opportunities. And all the younger, newer groups who look up to us for the same kind of things. It's a beautiful circle and a joyous way to approach professional life!

Many thanks,EllenChicago Q Ensemble

This is a beautiful gift, Polly. I’m so glad to see Polly, what a nice focusing of meditation. You have me reaching Thank you for Thank you for your eloquent ways, your words ring so true, not just for the theater artist, but for all.this. I have forwarded it to the School of Fine Minnesota amongst legislators, administrators, Franz Fanon, Cassavetes, a concert pianist, Artistic Director, Shakespeare, Lewis Hyde…it’s a Dear Polly, above my desk at work is one of the greatest gifts of advice I’ve received in my career. Thank you for sharing American Blues, nourished, supported, encouraged and galvanized as I do right now! Theatergood one! Thanks!

This is a beautiful gift, Polly. I'm so glad to see Lewis Hyde's book come into the conversation...it's a good one! Thanks!--Deborah Brevoort

Polly, what a nice focusing of the minds. We should al read this with our morning coffee as a weekly meditation. You have me reaching for writings by many of my favorite artists and thinkers now - Franz Fanon, Cassavetes - are we who we want to be is a great question to start the day with.

Joanna SettleArtistic DirectorShakespeare on the Sound

Polly,

Thank you for this. I have forwarded it to the School of Fine Arts here at the University of Minnesota Duluth. As higher education faces the "scarcity" of dollars we in the fine arts are facing a "scarcity" of imagination amongst legislators, administrators, and regents.

But generosity will prevail. Thanks for the inspiration.

Bill PayneAmerican Blues Theater and Dean, SFA University of Minnesota Duluth

Thank you for this wonderful essay, Polly. Very inspiring to me! It also brought back a lot of good memories. When I was an undergraduate at NYU, we were required to read Lewis Hyde´s "The Gift", and its philosophy made a significant impact on myself and my peers. I feel fortunate that I emerged from a program and a community (New York City in the early 1990s) that seemed to promote community, collaboration, and being generous with one another. It´s as though my peers and I have been able to co-mentor one another over the past 17 years or more.

Amidst scarcity, or the perception of it, it is crucial that we remain generous and helpful towards one another. The performing arts community gets enough hard knocks from without, we should do everything we can to help one another from within.

Brendan McCallArtistic DirectorEnsemble Free Theater Norway

Dear writer, Polly, thank you for your thoughtful reflections at the passing from this life of your friend and generous mentor; thank you for sharing them with your community at large. I am not an active participant in the occupation of which you write, but I must tell you that the recommendations for a deeper experience and the encouragement to participate more fully as one's own choreographer in the 'dance of living' was gratefully received. Upon some reflection of my own, I must say that for me each day is a threshhold event and requires me to soar freely in upper altitudes even though I know that I do not have the infrastructure and means to accomplish the work I am passionate about; I am grappling with the reality that there is passion waiting to be discovered in my assignment of the day even if, or maybe more so, than if I was confident in my level of passion towards it. So, thank you for your heartfelt investment in me with your soul-felt expressions, Kate

Yes! Thank you for this essay. It is all too easy to forget why we do what we do and who we do it for. Floating along day to day may feed the hunger but may not nourish the soul.Tom was a friend of mine from college. He was a true champion of the arts and will be sorely missed.Thank you again. So many things to think about!

Just the words I needed to hear today as I spent another 7 hours in front of the laptop trying to sell our latest show to reviewers and audience who may not want to bite a little show from a little town, but created with nothing but absolute heart.

Replacing ego with gratitude is the key to it all.

Dear Polly,I'm printing this and hanging above my desk at work. Truly, this is one of the greatest gifts of advice I've received in my career. Thank you for sharing.Much respect,Wendy WhitesideProducing Artistic DirectorAmerican Blues Theater

I am a concert pianist (self-represented, by the way!) and not a theatre person, but everything you say rings absolutely true to me. This is an inspiring and galvanizing little essay and a wonderful gift to both your own community and to the larger arts one. Thank you so much!

Polly,Thank you for your eloquent thoughts. Now that I'm steeped in the world of philanthropy, where we rely on the giving spirit of our community to help our community in all kinds of ways, your words ring so true, not just for the theater artist, but for all. best,Sharon

Thank you for this, Polly. I hope all my colleagues will read it and feel as nourished, supported, encouraged and galvanized as I do right now!

Polly, this essay is a threshold gift itself, inspired by and for your mentor Tom. I feel lucky to receive it too, and so glad that your gift takes this form. It's provocative and important to think about ethics, generosity, and mentorship in a field (world?) where it often feels like there's not room to do so.

This is beautiful, Polly - thank you for writing it. It is a wonderful way to honor Tom. One of his students at the UMN said the most simple and powerful thing in their tribute to him - "...Tom always had time for me." You say it here and I know his tribe of non-theater friends would agree - he ALWAYS had time for all of us. That is a gift we can can continue to give to others in his memory - time! Great call to action - thank you.

This is a terrific post. And to your list of 6, I would add one more - recommend - going beyond 'come see the show I'm a part of' and recommend writers to directors, designers to companies, companies to actors, and so on and so forth. If you see a fantastic gig/opportunity out there, recommend that the fantastic people you know check it out.

“Once the gift has stirred within us it is up to us to develop it.” just what i needed to hear today. thank you. and so sorry about the loss of your friend.

Amen! For me, finding a way to keep making the work with colleagues I trust and love has been the key to freedom from the "cloud of bitterness". The work is its own threshold. Thanks for this lovely piece, Polly.

this was a wonderful essay to read on a monday morning. thanks.

"a gift that cannot be given away ceases to be a gift. The spirit of a gift is kept alive by its constant donation."

Polly, thanks for this. Like my grandma always said -- life is not about what you get; it's about what you give.

This is so welcome - a breath of good clean air in the often smoggy theatrical atmosphere. I love this and embrace it, start to finish. Thanks for writing it.

I have to take issue with your suggestion that artists not read reviews. Why can't a critic be a "trusted colleague"? I don't know of any critics who don't care about the quality of the art-- even if some are more thoughtful than others. We're theatre people; we understand the need for long term collaboration and the give and take that involves. Critics are simply part of that process.

Beautiful Polly! Thank you for sharing the gift of remembering to think about genorosity and abundance as a central part of our vocation.

Thank you for this timely gift, Polly. I've just had some set backs in my creative life and it put it all in perspective.

Lovely tribute. I so appreciate your thoughts on generosity. This made me think about my film professor who used to say, "Another person's success is not your failure. If you learn nothing else from me, learn that!" Brad always says when approaching any situation say, "How may I be of service?"

thanks Polly. this is a quite profound article and one hearing today made me realize i needed it badly. thank so much!a

Thank you for sharing your wisdom and generosity, Polly.

Your 6 "thoughts" as to how we can better create the conditions for generosity, are 6 concrete steps to be followed by theatre-makers everywhere. And your tribute to Tom Proehl is eloquent.

Through this article you model the spirit of generosity about which you write, and I'm convinced that it is the only way we really learn.