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The Servant Economy

The following is an edited version of a keynote address, delivered at the Association of Performing Arts Service Organizations, hosted by Theatre Puget Sound in Seattle, April 6, 2016.

People listening to a talk
Todd London speaking at the APASO conference. Photo by Shane Regan.

I started making a list of all the people who taught me about service and the list grew too long. But one of the people on the list died this week and I just want to name her, out of respect for her superhuman efforts to keep the American theatre linked to the great wide world of artists around the globe, for a lifetime of making the International Theatre Institute a force for connection, for a lifetime of being the ITI. Rest in peace Martha Coigney.

I had never heard the phrase "service organization" before I saw an ArtSearch ad for a job at one. It was 1985. I chanced upon ART/NY, landed a windfall $20,000-a-year job on a staff of six in a West SOHO loft, tripped across the concept of service, and stumbled into my life.

I spent the next thirty years in organizations serving theatres, audiences, and, for eighteen years at New Dramatists, playwrights. I've also sat on service organization boards and advisory boards, written for their publications, spoken at their gatherings, railed at their decisions, and through them discovered what I am for. My professional life is being lived in debt to the people in these service communities, as well as to the ones who came before, our service ancestry, that too-long list. My gratitude is a well.

What if we in the arts are the people standing between the fall and survival of a civil society? And what if the only way to save that society is to disengage entirely from the economic model that brought us to this brink?

My questions come out of those experiences. They are overlarge questions, unanswerables maybe, but I want to entertain them earnestly. Here are two: What if we in the arts are the people standing between the fall and survival of a civil society? And what if the only way to save that society is—imperiled as we are—to disengage entirely from the economic model that brought us to this brink?

We talk about our humanizing role, but what if we had to prove it for real. A test. Jedi art warriors on the verge of the apocalypse. In place of light sabers and droids we have glow tape and musical instruments, story and song and the force of our imagining. What then?

The etymology of the word service points in two directions. In Old English, service means religious devotion; in the Old French and Latin it denotes slavery. It's a big word, service, calling to mind food and kindness, military duty, patriotic honor, and sex. I want to stay with the two-headed root, though: dedication to a life of spirit this way; indenture that. To the right, we have the arts service community's saint-like fanaticism. To the left, its feelings of unappreciated servitude. Sometimes we serve glorious missions; sometimes we serve the self-serving. "You have given your life to a beautiful cause," the angel on one shoulder whispers. The devil on the other laughs, "Nobody sees or knows what you do. It's not worth it. Fuck it. Go make some money."

"You’re gonna have to serve somebody," Bob Dylan sings. "Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord/But you’re gonna have to serve somebody." In daily ways, we all serve somebody, and those somebodies form different communities. Some of us are here for artists, some for theatres or presenting organizations, some for audiences, well-heeled or underserved, and some for a mix of the above. In theory all these communities have equal value, just as our organizations have equal value. Audience is no less worthy than artist or artist than institution. We are all part of that great contemporary cliché—an ecosystem.

When I was traveling around the country with Theatre Development Fund for the research on new play production that became the book Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the American Play, I often mispronounced that word, and when I was corrected, I learned something important from the malapropism: ecosystems can, in fact, be echo-systems. And in echo-systems accepted truths that may not be truths at all resound and rebound and redound until we believe them, simply because we say them over and over again. We have many such words in our echo-system currently, words that, through overuse and lack of specificity and care, have been squeezed of meaning or manipulated to connote their opposite. Even the richest words—like "community"—can become what Wikipedia calls, when questioning the editorial integrity of an entry, "weasel words."

We live in a world of weasel words, and particularly in these days of late capitalism, when everything we do and say is weighed and exploited or rejected on the basis of its usefulness in the marketplace, it can be as hard to retrieve original meanings as it is to reconnect to original impulses. I fear for our word: service.

For all its devotional grace notes, the word has always had economic undertones. Think Downton Abbey. Increasingly, service has taken on the vestments of capitalism, confusing the devotional with the mercantile. We are in a new stage of economic development, a "service economy." When you think about it, it's a strange, almost oxymoronic formulation. If service describes the dedication to something beyond ourselves, maybe even beyond our knowing, what is its economic value?

In business, the value is clear: to earn money from service you don't have to make, store, ship, or usually fix anything. Service has become part of a "product-service continuum," a dematerialization of products, where you add service to what you make to multiply opportunities for profit. I don't need to belabor the point, but you get where I'm going. In the arts we don't do service to multiply profit, anymore than we do nonprofit to multiply profit. Service in the twenty-first century has to begin with taking the word back, taking it back to the better half of its etymological nature.

"We are in the midst of a crisis of massive proportions and grave global significance," the legal and ethical philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum writes in her 2010 manifesto Not for Profit. Nussbaum is writing about humanistic education, but she's describing a crisis of soul. She doesn't insist on that word, soul, but rather what is meant by it: "the faculties of thought and imagination that make us human and make our relationships rich human relationships, rather than relationships of mere use and manipulation." In other words, according to Nussbaum, ours is a crisis for that thing that happens, especially in the arts, when thought opens out of the soul and connects "person to world in a rich, subtle, and complicated manner…" When we "approach another person as a soul, rather than as a mere useful instrument or an obstacle." When we "talk as someone who has a soul to someone else [we see] as similarly deep and complex."

The inspiring Zelda Fichandler, who helped lead the regional theatre movement as a founder and guiding spirit of D C's Arena Stage, is fond of quoting a Burmese poem that says much the same thing: "The fish dwell in the depths of the water, and the eagles in the sides of heaven; the one, though high, may be reached with the arrow, and the other, though deep, with the hook; but the heart of man at a foot's distance cannot be known." It's the same concept: the hardest chasm to bridge in this world is between me and you, my soul and yours. Artists are "soul-workers," to use a phrase I first heard from Ben Krywosz of Nautilus Music-Theater in St. Paul. Art is what we have, from which to construct this bridge, person to person, artist to audience, soul to soul.

How do we construct this bridge? Or more precisely, in service, how do we who serve our nation's "soul workers" help them to construct this bridge?

For a few years now, arts advocates have been trying to find a way out of the economic arguments we got tangled in, trying to justify arts funding. We sang the old theatre-as-stimulation-package song: "The arts bring four bajillion dollars to our city every year because crazy numbers of people attend arts events, and all of 'em gotta eat." Probably the most profound exit strategy from the grip of such arguments has been Theatre Bay Area's "intrinsic impact" study led by Wolf/Brown, and published as the many-voiced Counting New Beans. This work, as I read it, tries to find the most apt language for describing what the theatre actually does to and for a person. Artistic impact on its own terms, and not in its marketplace translation.

These efforts mark an important fork in the road, but a complicated one. We are still trying to justify, still reacting to the economy, still training our hopeful, desperate gaze on the same funders and ticket buyers. We are still—excuse the melodramatic turn of phrase—enslaved to an economic system designed to serve the accumulation of wealth rather than the wealth of our humanity.

audience members listening to a talk
Todd London speaking at the APASO conference. Photo by Shane Regan.

Nowhere does one feel this more powerfully than in a university, where the push for our students to become specialized, labor-force-ready, job seekers is strangling the humanities and social sciences, whose numbers of majors are in precipitous decline, threatening the arts, and making that gorgeous pairing "liberal arts" sound like something out of Chaucer. Whoever he was. Novelist Marilynne Robinson puts it succinctly in her recent Harper’s essay, "Save Our Public Universities." "The Citizen has become the Taxpayer." This is what I hear when arts administrators talk about the "nonprofit sector." I hear the triumph of market speak over the passionate, devotional, righteous, metaphoric language of art.

Robinson spells it out: "Poetry, eloquence, memory, wit, the fires of imagination, the depth of thought: these are mentioned as rarely now as the object or effect of education as 'the natural grandeur of man' is mentioned as a basis of our culture or politics." And without these things—poetry, eloquence, memory, wit, imaginative fire, and the rest—not to mention brilliance and grandeur, we are reduced to what the brilliant Robinson calls, "plume-plucked humankind."

Every generation as it ages issues Jeremiads decrying the rise of everything horrible and predicting the end of the world. I know that by proclaiming a crisis of soul and warning against threats to character, self, and imagination I sound like an old fart, somebody's papa's preacher. I don't believe in fire and brimstone raining down, though, and working with playwrights for so long and with theatre students, I still believe that the work of wonder will find its future.

But we serve the arts, and art requires noticing, opening our eyes and questioning what we see. We open our eyes and see politicians inciting mob violence. We open our eyes and see the mass incarceration and normalized murder of black citizens. We watch states rolling back the rights of women over their own bodies, legislating discrimination based on how people love and self-identify, boosting profits at the devastating expense of our planet, refusing to control weapons of mass slaughter because it's carried out by white guys.

However narrowly we define our missions, we don't just serve a field; we serve a world. And this is the world we live in now. However narrowly we define our charge, however well-intentioned our aims, we are part of a system that defines success by market worth and utility, in which the labor of many feeds the earnings of very very few. Do we continue to serve it—in the Latin sense of slavery—do we change it, or do we, somehow, leave it?

A civilization is judged by what it does and by what it makes. It is judged at the extremes: the best and worst of what it does and the best and worst of what it makes.

A civilization is judged by what it does and by what it makes. It is judged at the extremes: the best and worst of what it does and the best and worst of what it makes. I'm consoled by Marilynne Robinson's reminder that "The badness of the worst we do does not diminish the goodness of the best we do."

If this is true, how do we enhance that goodness? I believe, as I assume you do, that some of the best we do happens in rooms where art is made and shared. This is true whether those rooms are experimental incubators, community-based gathering spaces, or places where tradition is honored and examined. I spend as much of my life as I can in those rooms and, because the best of our humanity is on display there, I look to artists for answers. They lead us through the unknown and into the future, so there's no better help in a crisis of the soul. What do they have to teach us?

I've made a list of eight favorite lessons I've learned from the artists in my life. In no particular order:

1. Begin with what if?
It's the question at the beginning of imagination, the root question: what if? It's a question that, in its asking, runs counter to stubborn reality: what is. You'll remember I started with a what if: What if the fate of civil society literally depends on what we in this room and the people we serve do? If we knew this to be true, what would we do? We expect our legislators to immediately address a proven global climate crisis. Shouldn't "the unacknowledged legislators of the world," as Shelley called poets, act forcefully to address an evident crisis of our humanity? Saving humanity is not a job for fundraising consultants and brand managers. It's a job for the people who show us to ourselves. The better our questions, the better our insights. "What if?" may be the best question around.

2. Acknowledge your sources and ancestors.
A lot of my Facebook friends are writers, actors, and directors, and I am continuously moved by their use of social media to credit and celebrate their teachers and inspirations—birth- and death- day tributes, posts of recordings and film clips, online essays, and more. These days, for instance, it appears the entire American Theatre is celebrating the legacy of María Irene Fornés. Hero Theatre in LA mounted a huge festival of her work; Irene's plays and teaching are a major focus of the national Latina/o Theatre Commons; she's the subject of new books by artists and scholars, and, most moving of all, fellow artists and students have rallied around her in age and illness, advocated for her Alzheimer's elder care, sung with her in the nursing home, read to her, held her, and remembered on her behalf.

Artists understand source. They know that we never can and never want to live in Year Zero, as Cambodia's Khmer Rouge dubbed it. Why would anyone want to eradicate vestiges of the culture that came before? We stand on land stolen from other people. Artists remind us. We build on the work of those who came before. Artists add new questions to theirs, new insights to theirs. We rely on the wisdom of our forebears. Artists know this.

3. People are deeply individual, and people are profoundly connected.
Is anything better than art when it comes to articulating singularity, the unique life-human difference? Is anything better than art when it comes to connecting us across that difference?

4. To make something work you must stay in the room.
There is no walking out of rehearsal or performance. When artists show up they come armed with the knowledge that time together is the most precious resource. There's never enough time and, so, to make something true and beautiful, they keep at it. Together. There are no lame-duck sessions in art making. There are no endless filibusters. No waiting till the next President. Artists are reliant on each other for the fulfillment of our individual ambitions. They need each other to make work, and they need each other to make world. To do that you have to stay in the room.

Ensembles exemplify that staying, and so I love that there's a Network of Ensemble Theaters to sustain artists collaborating over long periods of time.

5. Acting is listening.
One of the Group Theatre greats introduced the idea in America; I think it was Robert Lewis. In performance, listening is everything. Actors don't generate emotion; they take others in and are moved by them. All action—onstage and off—is, in this way, reaction.

It's a deep lesson and it, too, has an etymological foundation: to respond and to be responsible flow from the same source. Both essentially mean "answerable." In listening begins accountability. Service works like this, too. Service is listening. And our listening awakens the impulse to act, to do, to take responsibility for another.

6. Need precedes labor.
Artists work because they are moved to by inner need. Consumer culture works to create need where there is none. I choose the artist's way.

7. Wealth wisdom.
Actually I didn't learn this from artists: I learned it working with boards. We all know them, those board members who, by virtue of having made, married, or inherited pots of money, believe they possess uncommon wisdom. And clearly they're right to think it. Our country deifies the rich.

I've learned something better, though, in my years in the art church that is New Dramatists: wisdom is hard won, and you gain it by wrestling with internal and external demons. And you win for a minute at a time, and the prize is some small illumination, some shining fleeting moment when art trumps wealth and art trumps ownership and art trumps bluff and self-interest and other-hate.

And another insight, too, from years of having playwrights on the New Dramatists board: the lay board members were hungry to hear from the artists, hungry. When the writers spoke, the room changed and with it, occasionally, the future of the organization.

The artist always starts from scratch. Not just raising the chisel to the stone, but making or mining the damn stone, whacking at it, shaping it, cracking it down the middle. We are always back at the beginning, and that requires stamina and faith.

8. Last and least favorite lesson: We are always starting over.
The artist always starts from scratch. Not just raising the chisel to the stone, but making or mining the damn stone, whacking at it, shaping it, cracking it down the middle. Then back to the mines. We are always back at the beginning, and that requires stamina and faith.

This has been the hardest thing for me, working in service organizations. Every year brings the same cycle of deadlines, the reiteration of this selection process and that program. We explain what we do, repeat the stories of our history, and orient new members, even as we listen for nascent concerns and fresh voices. Another year passes, or another generation, and, because the players have changed—we return to square one. It's Sisyphus all over again.

I learned how to deal with it from artists and from my service colleagues and the organizations they staff. Maybe it's another favorite lesson: We need fellow travelers—writers groups, drinking buddies, salons, shared studios—and APASO conferences. Alternate Roots calls them "communities of spirit."

How can we use these few simple lessons to ensure the survival of a civil, soulful society, if we are indeed the ones to do it? "If we do not insist on the crucial importance of the humanities and the arts," Martha Nussbaum concludes, "they will drop away, because they do not make money. They only do what is much more precious than that, make a world that is worth living in... They do not make money." This is the gist, the challenge, and the gift of service in the arts.

As I made my artist lesson list, I thought about the programs some of our service organizations offer, the spirit they embody, the lessons they teach. What will happen when Theatre Bay Area and TDF get playwrights and audience members talking and listening to each other, unmediated by theatre curators, as part of their Triple Play initiative? What kind of new accountability will take hold? How does the grassroots activism of Alternate Roots move us deeper into connection, closer to justice? And in our roles as soul-defenders, aren't we blessed to have a field of theatres more determined to upend oppression than to bump up ticket sales?

This list goes on, too: how the National New Play Network creates an expanding constellation for new plays; how Theatre Communications Group works on a dozen different fronts to heal field fracture through inclusion; how Fractured Atlas throws lifelines to individual artists; how Hands On led the nation's efforts on access, one interpreted performance at a time; how across America ticket booths provide another kind of access through discounted tickets; how HowlRound, in a few years, has transformed professional hierarchy into a commons and, so, brought hundreds of previously unheard voices into our national conversation; how ART/NY has conquered the New York real estate market, and then done it again; how every theatre alliance represents small vital theatres that, by the love-sport of their work, are already wresting us from the servant economy.

There's a poignant passage in Arlene Goldbard's clever and expansive "Symposium" at the end of Counting New Beans. Based on Plato's Symposium, Goldbard's dialogue takes place at a dinner party arranged by a theatre advocate with a diverse group of theatre lovers.

"'You know what I was thinking?'" the Advocate character asks as the night draws to a close. "'Those ancient philosophers were interested in the ideal, like Plato's Republic. These were the kinds of questions that obsessed them: what is the good, what is the just, how can we create societies that embody those qualities?'" She goes on, "'When I think about how different our questions are today, my heart sinks a little. Sometimes it seems like all we are trying to do is make things marginally better in an unjust society. … I don't know anyone who's spending their energy designing the ideal government … anyone who believes that … the good will actually prevail. And there's no chance unless we can at least conceive of it. I think theatre can be a space to imagine that.'" I hear this last line as a breeze of hope and direction: theatre as a space to imagine the ideal.

When I open my eyes and look out at the world we call real, I think about Plato, too, about his cave. And I think that real is the shadows flickering on the wall of that cave. The shadow world looks real only because we agree that it is. We have to sell tickets. We want our theatres to survive, want to pay artists and staff in a world without subsidy. We have to do something to get there, and that means marketing and funders and people of means on our boards. That's life in the real world.

Maybe, though, this is only one version of the real world. Rehearsal, where actors work together to make and model a better society—that's real, too. The writer's imagination is real. What happens in story circles with our neighbors is real, as is what happens when we sing together and what stirs in the hearts of students when they discover they are artists. Our ideal is more real than those shadows can ever be.         

History will judge us by what we do and what we make, but we judge ourselves by who we are. And if we judge ourselves free, we need to find our way to freedom from serving an economy that doesn't serve us. We need to find our way to the original, devotional meaning of that beautiful and good word: service.

"The etymologist," Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, "finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant picture." Thank you for all you are doing to make service, once again, a brilliant picture.

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As always you inspire me, and move me, and make me want to keep moving. These words rise up from an essential well of truth. Yours, yes, but you speak far beyond yourself. You speak for sense and meaning, both endangered and in need of protection. You protect what matters. You're a hero.
love, Charlotte

work because they are moved to by inner need. Consumer culture works to
create need where there is none. I choose the artist's way. - See more
work because they are moved to by inner need. Consumer culture works to
create need where there is none. I choose the artist's way. - See more

Heartfelt, brilliant, timely. Thank you so much,Mr. London, for articulating this issue. I am a member of the Latina/o Theater Commons and have been researching the notion of the 'commons'. I was amazed that, in US history, figures like Raplh Waldo Emerson and the great inventor, Benjamin Franklin, all had a deeply rooted sense of service, by this I mean the impulse towards sharing and being of service for the greater good. Again, many thanks!

Thank you so much for this, Todd London and HowlRound. It moved me tremendously. I hope everyone in my network reads it and is inspired.

I will forward this to my board. This gets at our original impulses as theatre-makers that are so easily lost as we fight the day to day economic battles of making art. Thank you for sharing.