We often consider technology an imposition on both our craft and our business: social media putting pressure on everything from marketing to performance, for example, or IT budgets draining resources from “more important” work. But the etymological root of technology is techne: the Greek word for art. To paraphrase cartoonist Walt Kelly, we have met the enemy, and it is us. Every month or so, this column will investigate the ways in which technology can inspire us, transform us, and help us chart a new course in the 21st century. Thanks for—to use a radio metaphor—tuning in.
In 1943, under pressure from German advances, the United States Army Air Forces needed to build a new airplane as quickly as possible. The Lockheed Aircraft Corporation—relying on nothing more than a handshake agreement—assembled a team of diversely skilled engineers, freed them from bureaucratic constraints, and put them into complete seclusion. The newly-formed team delivered the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star in only 143 days, start to finish… a full week ahead of schedule. (A contract with a deadline wasn’t signed until four months into the less-than-five-month design and development process.) In time, the P-80 was improved upon (and eventually replaced), but it set a new standard, launching the “jet age” of air combat and remaining in active service for three decades. It was an impressive achievement.
Lockheed’s Skunk Works, as the team called itself, was named in honor of the Al Capp comic strip L’il Abner, which featured a fictional factory of sorts, hidden in the backwoods of Kentucky, at which “Big Barnsmell” used a still to create “skonk oil,” a noxious potion that served some never-revealed purpose. The Al Capp version of a “skonk works” couldn’t have been more different from Lockheed’s on the surface, but they were suited to the same purpose: what we now call, in modern parlance, R&D, or research and development.
I’ve been wondering lately where in the American theater our own R&D efforts might be found… if indeed they actually exist. Some have suggested that the university system might be the right place to find it, but I’m not convinced. While I believe academic rigor is important for experimentation, especially when it comes to assessing results, the best R&D requires professionals without any other responsibilities other than innovation: with nothing but big ideas and audacious goals to live up to. Getting grades in by the end of the semester, sitting on committees, and tending to the needs of undergraduates would be a distraction.
If we were to follow the Lockheed model, then perhaps our skunk works ought to be located within a regional theater, the way the American Voices New Play Institute used to be situated within Arena Stage. (Though I don’t believe it ever quite functioned as a genuine R&D department.) Do any have the forethought or innovative spirit to create such an arrangement? Does one exist already of which I’m not aware? I’d like to know.
Some might actually suggest that HowlRound is the very thing I’m looking for. And yet—and I ask this with great respect for the platform on which I’ve now contributed ten or so articles—is the Theater Commons a skunk works? Some of what gets produced (notably, the New Play Map) would seem to be the result of that sort of effort, but the focus of the Commons seems to be on discussing the theater (and opening up that discussion) and on innovating institutional structures (via playwrights residencies, for example), rather than on pure research and development for the art form itself.
A real skunk works focused on art production, it seems to me, might include—for example—a neurologist using fMRI scans to study how stories affect the human brain, a playwright developing scripts with enhanced content intended to be delivered via Google Glass, a civic practice expert designing new ways to engage a unique audience segment via participatory theater, and a lighting designer using new tools to filter fragmentary spectra of natural light, just to dream up a few possibilities. A dozen or two innovative practitioners who work in small cross-disciplinary groups to make art in new ways, then share their findings with the rest of us: that’s what research and development might look like to me.
It seems to me that most of the skunk work-like effort in the American theater happens in small and mid-sized companies like dog and pony dc and Pig Iron and The Debate Society and a few dozen others besides who are stretching our art form and taking it in new directions and creating new forms for the rest of us to fill. One would have to imagine that in their independence (though certainly they have boards of directors to answer to, at least in most cases, and the normal not-for-profit theater pressures to respond to) they have the freedom to experiment and innovate… but without the support offered by a big institution, are they limited in what they might achieve? And I don’t mean budgetary support, mind you; skunk works’ budgets are notoriously thin. I mean the expectations for success and the endorsement of the effort that would be part and parcel of a big institution’s presence, leadership, and involvement. They would be invaluable.
Wherever our skunk works (singular or plural) might be located, it’s absolutely clear that our industry needs that sort of effort…if only because every industry does. If we simply repeat, again and again, what we already know how to do, we might as well become obsolescent like cuneiform or letterpress printing, to name two other communications technologies that have long since faded from use. So who is going to step up and say, “We will make this happen, for the good of us all”—who has the courage, foresight, and willingness to do that? Because we’re under pressure—not like the United States Army during World War II, mind you, but pressure nonetheless, from myriad competing art and entertainment options—and we need help.