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The Theater of Our Understanding and Enlargement

Recently a short, sharp, shock of a Twitter exchange broke out over this video of music educator Eric Booth drawing a distinction between art and entertainment. Here is the snippet at issue, loosely transcribed:

Art is an act of world making—that is the fundamental act of art... and active listening is the capacity to enter a world that someone else has made…. Entertainment will keep reaching out for and delighting you. It will stimulate you on a regular basis because we want to keep coming across the [footlights] to keep you entertained. Art is an improvisational duo—there's the work and there's you and you have to be able to enter it for the exchange to happen…the etymology of the word "attend" is to stretch out. There's an energy required, an effort, …actually entering that world and knowing what to do when you get there.

Some years ago in San Francisco I heard  Booth, who, by the way, is a very entertaining speaker on these topics, telling the story he tells here about coming up with a distinction between art and entertainment for himself and determining (I'm paraphrasing here)—that entertainment happens within what we already know, that it confirms our sense of the world. Art happens outside what we already know. Art asks us to enter worlds outside our experience. It expands our sense of the possible. He goes on to say that, in our culture, this act of thinking outside the known, the comfortable, the givens, takes an act of courage for the person experiencing it and that it is in a very real sense the role of art to support and inspire that leap, that courage.

The Twitter exchange revolved around the question of whether art and entertainment were polar opposites. Booth pleads with his audience not to “make entertainment the enemy of art.” And I agree with him. I feel strongly that the purpose and responsibility we accept when we seek the shelter of nonprofit structures is as Zelda Fichandler said in her testimony to Congress to include theatres in the 501(c)(3) exemption: “We made the choice not to recoup our investment, but to recoup some corner of the universe for our understanding and enlargement.” This is the very opposite of confirming the known—it specifically calls us to reclaim the unknown. It got me wondering how these two things—art and entertainment—are not polar opposites for me?

One of the skills that Booth references that arts educators must help students, and by extension, audiences, develop is “reflection”: how to contextualize a challenging arts experience, how to think about what they've just seen or experienced. If I apply the same scrutiny to my own work to date, when I make the list of moments that I feel nailed, completely, what I aspire to with my life in theatre, I see a list comprised of both entertainments and artistic leaps into worlds unknown. And, surprisingly, I find the moments that top my list are those that managed in some way to do both. At the bottom of my list—where those projects that least fulfilled my desires for making a meaningful life through theatre—projects where I created no new world, where I merely reached over the footlights to confirm the world of the regular theatregoer. I realize that, for me, success dwells with the commitment to create a world, each time, and to support and inspire the audience as they try to enter it, to make it possible for them to know what to do inside this world we have created.

a man smiling at the camera
David Dower.
Photo by Mike Ritter. 

 

At the bottom of my list—where those projects that least fulfilled my desires for making a meaningful life through theatre—projects where I created no new world, where I merely reached over the footlights to confirm the world of the regular theatregoer.

 

Producing the Impact

I have developed four monologues with my friend Josh Kornbluth. Josh is often described as a comic. He is relentless about coming over the footlights to keep you entertained (listen to his audiobook Red Diaper Baby, a collection of monologues, if you need more than my opinion about his appeal, or just listen to it to prove me wrong). But in our work, he is also always conjuring a world that takes his audience into a different relationship to him, to the world, and to themselves. A Berkeley-based artist, his audience mostly expects him to confirm their leftist, progressive political and social values. We have tried, consistently, to deliver—within the experience of the performance itself—both an entertainment (for this audience, a well-timed joke about Chomsky or All Things Considered is the equivalent of a fart joke for teenage boys) and a journey that calls for and rewards a leap. When the hapless and hilarious narrator suddenly executes a full-throated, deeply researched and fully owned defense of the role of taxes in a civilized society, or turns to confront the Warhol portrait of Golda Meir with his true and deeply personal ambivalence about Israel, or drops you right into the truth of the consequences of the 2000 Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore, we are trying to have it both ways. Entertainment and art.

Do we succeed? Depends on who's handing down the verdict. But we aim for it. We approach our desired outcome with integrity and tenacity—in full knowledge that we are unlikely to recoup the same return on investment that is possible if we simply aim for entertainment's bull's eye, which Josh is quite capable of hitting, by the way, should he ever decide to let go of the desire to recoup some corner of the universe for our enlargement.

I am equally proud of my work as a producer on a project that many outsiders would say was pure entertainment. The Arena Stage production of Sophisticated Ladies was pure showbiz—a nonstop hit parade of some of the most beloved popular music, 250 extravagant costumes, and dance numbers that kept topping themselves all night. No book, just music, music, music. The show set a new box office record for Arena, but that is not what makes me proud. While I appreciated what the show did for us financially, what puts this show at the top of my list of times I “nailed it” revolves around our aims for community impact and what we accomplished there. In this case, the entertainment was the threshold for the art.

First, there was director Charles Randolph Wright's vision that this show—staged in Ellington's home theatre, The Lincoln Theater—should deliver the audience into a new understanding of the history of the venue, its neighborhood, and Mr. Ellington. The theatre had once been the heart of DC's “Black Broadway,” It gave Ellington a home from which to launch a career, and the neighborhood was the birthplace of the Harlem Renaissance. Yes, the U Street Corridor in Washington, DC, was the birthplace of the Harlem Renaissance. When we began planning the show, the area was still regarded by most Arena patrons as a dangerously blighted section of DC, despite the incredible revitalization that had brought it roaring back years earlier. The creative team wanted this show to reframe the general public's opinion of U Street, starting with Arena's patrons but reaching also into the suburban black communities that no longer patronized the neighborhood. Long before rehearsals began, we started developing partnerships that focused on creating audience demand and community impact. We partnered with the Smithsonian to incorporate archival imagery of the building, the block, and Ellington's career into the show and worked with a neighborhood historian to create walking tours of the important addresses of this pre-Harlem Renaissance era. Local merchants and city officials were also engaged in the effort.

At the same time, the show's star, Maurice Hines, was committed to having the show launch local DC talent, so  months before the show's opening master classes in high schools, colleges, and community dance venues were organized. An open audition was held as a public event. In the end, Mr. Hines found three local dancers for the show, including two teenage brothers, John and Leo Manzari, whose performance on stage echoed  performances of the young Hines brothers.

Long story short, the show became so much more than an entertainment as a result of this set of intentions, fully pursued as a responsibility of the producer. We produced not only the production, the performances, and the marketing, we produced the impact. It celebrated, it confirmed, the genius of Duke Ellington, and it transported the audience into Ellington's world, a corner of the universe most had never visited, and helped them know what to do when they got there. And this, by the way led to an explosion at the box office.

With Josh’s monologues and Sophisticated Ladies, worlds were created that extended beyond the footlights. People who never even entered the theatre, who never even saw the performances visited the worlds we created, whether it was through listening to Josh’s witty and acerbic monologues or seeing a historic DC neighborhood in a new light. The impact reached well beyond the theatre and the theatregoers. We built portals to the world in their schools, in churches, in programs online, and over the airwaves—people got to the recouped corner of the universe who could not get to the performance. We designed and produced that impact as part and parcel of doing these shows. For these works, "what's on stage" is but one facet of the experience, one way to enter the created world.

I recently did a Friday Phone Call with Jocelyn Prince, the Connectivity Director at Woolly Mammoth. She has the job of creating impact and building multiple avenues of engagement—portals to the created world that invite people to “attend” (in the Eric Booth sense of the word—to stretch out, to step beyond the role of passive receiver of the entertainment aspects of the total project). She constructs these portals right where the intended audience lives, not inside the playbill of the theatre. She is in the community center, in the bar, in the school, in the workplace building doorways into the world and dispensing tools to the audience so they know what to do when they get to the performance.

And when you get to the performance, Woolly has built many ways to explore the world. The play itself, the lobby action, the talkbacks, the online interactions. This, I believe strongly, is all part of the job of producing the art of theatre. Even when we begin with a piece of pure entertainment, we in the nonprofit theatre have the responsibility to produce art. What is there to be constructed—what new world—around the decision to produce Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf today? Or A Christmas Carol this year as distinct from last year?

Intention and Relevance

I have also made art that stubbornly refused to reach across the footlights. I remember one particular night at the Z Space, producing a performance of Randall Wong's A Household Opera, a Victorian toy puppet opera based on the Orpheus and Eurydice story performed by manipulated household objects. It was so alien and so quixotic and kind of exquisite but inscrutable. And I loved it for taking me and the audience into something so uncharted. At the end of the opera, as the lovers—played by a toy toaster and an old-fashioned alarm clock—are reunited in death, the ascent to their reunion was scored for three toy pianos and a pile of music boxes all opened at once. The weeping in the audience surprised me, though it happened at  every performance. But, while the experience qualifies as art in Mr. Booth's definition, I wish I had known then the importance of constructing this world more expansively. Despite the fact that it took place in miniature and no more than forty-nine people could see it at a time, I could have produced much more of an impact for the piece—and ultimately for Mr. Wong—had I understood that part of the job. In a very real sense, the world I took responsibility for constructing was no bigger than the scale of the performance itself. I produced it twice, actually, and each time I sought and largely found an audience for the work that already knew the world-cognoscenti: lovers of opera, lovers of object theatre, theatremakers, and Z's patrons. For them, however artfully delivered, it took no courage, required no leap. It confirmed their sense of the world in every way. And neither the piece nor the artist saw any real and lasting impact as a result.

 

Works that I have made or produced where we did not, as artists and producers, set the intention—did not articulate the corner of the universe we were aiming to recoup and pursue it with the same fierce creativity and tenacity that we employed when making the actual production, fall short in my personal accounting. 

 

As I survey my history in this regard, I find that those works that had a set intention to impact, to reach for our enlargement or understanding—an intention that was fully engaged as a responsibility of the producer (me and my colleagues) and the artists (sometimes also me) whether fulfilled or not—those works feel like worthy attempts to me. Works that I have made or produced where we did not, as artists and producers, set the intention—did not articulate the corner of the universe we were aiming to recoup and pursue it with the same fierce creativity and tenacity that we employed when making the actual production, fall short in my personal accounting.

In his delineation of art and entertainment, Eric Booth goes on to say,

Inherent in the artistic experience is the capacity to expand our sense of the way the world is or might be.… We are the guides to help people perform this act of courage… to expand our sense of the possible … which is harder and harder for Americans to do that on our own. We live in a culture that is belligerently opposed to this act. We believe we should be entertained, entertained, entertained as opposed to expanding our own imaginative grasp on something to create a larger frame.… this is the act of consequence for human beings. To be able to be entertained, that’s great, but to be able to imagine more fully, that’s the action that transforms the quality of our lives, that is the action that lets us have the courage to imagine what democracy can be and not just have an opinion about who to vote for.

I have this theory that, if we endeavor to create “this act of consequence” he’s talking about, there are five phases to producing in the nonprofit theatre, and we must approach each of them with equal vigor and clarity:

  • Producing the development path of the idea.
  • Producing the production itself.
  • Producing the audience—knowing who it is for and getting them in the door as an intrinsic responsibility of the production.
  • Producing the impact—knowing what world you want them to enter and what they should do when they get there. Then making that happen.
  • Producing the Commons contribution—sharing your results with the field so the common wealth of knowledge grows with each production.

It seems to me that, whether we are putting art, entertainment, or some mix of both on stage, we can always set the intention—as artists and as producers—to invite the public to think outside of the known. And that when we do that, when we take the responsibility of producing the performance, the audience, and the understanding or enlargement in our community, we are working in harmony with the spirit of the nonprofit theatre.

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Yes David! And to take it further---Producing = Community Organizing/ Cultural Developer. I am so thankful for all of your work and others as well in helping me to RE-define the word Producer...sometimes us theatre folk get caught up in terms, i think we should continue like you have in this article to get more into the worlds we have created in the arts and see what they really mean---then, our work will become more intentional and more relevant!! Peace!!

pro·duc·er/prəˈd(y)o͞osər/Noun:A person, company, or country that makes, grows, or supplies goods or commodities for sale.A person or thing that makes or causes something.

I just looked up the word producer and this is what came back. It is interesting to me that the first definition is focused on goods and services- which is where many producers (individuals and organizations) leave it. But the second one, to me, is the one in my mind when I use it. "A person or thing that makes or causes something."

What you, and the dozens of other young people I have worked with to help develop "producer mind" and the skill set, are doing is "making and causing" more than preparing commodities for sale.

I love that you have taken your skills into the world of community organizing and cultural development. I look forward to living in the world you will cause.

 

Hi
David-

i
wanted to say thanks for this personal set of thoughts. Its big. You take on a
lot. Art & Entertainment. Reflection as a key element the arts offer
in educational and aesthetic contexts. Producing- what it is, as a noun and a
verb. And impact. Which then glances into the engagement and participation
conversation.

I
finish the essay thinking most about how you frame impact, and use it as a way
into the notion of producing, most clearly articulated in your final 5 proposed
necessary aspects of producing. I like the idea of this, and it's very aligned
with notions we at Sojourn and other companies mixing adventurous art with
rigorous engagement practice have been exploring for years. Audience design, a
continuum of activity from idea through expression, multi-sited
experiences.

There
is, though, a challenge for me in the way you discuss impact, and the act of
producing it, and because of my recent work with the Center for Performance and
Civic Practice, I am finding language in the field more slippery and precarious
than ever as we share conceptual frameworks within and beyond our sector.

I
don't think you can produce impact.

You
produce product. Work. Even action.

You
produce the circumstances and opportunity for a relationship to be built and
for exchange to occur. And with intentions to be impactful, you may create
impact.

But impact
is dependent on a transaction.

And
a product, just by definition, isn't a transaction.
Its a thing- be that an object or service.

It
needs a transaction to complete its journey towards consumption.

If
we use the language of product, and produce, then we are within a model of the
market.

And
that isn't wrong, or bad.

But
because i know you are invested in developing what I believe will be a really
significant effort in the new pedagogy of training and nurturing producers at
Emerson and beyond, it seems really key to be clear when entering into a
dialogue about impact (and engagement). The work of engagement (and innovative
impact thinking) around the country that has been paving the way for decades
leading to this moment of heightened attention, funding and investigation, is
perhaps muddied by the term 'produce impact' because it seems to ignore, semantically
and spiritually, the fact that the artist engages community in process with
intention and generosity and then, discovers what happens in partnership. You
plan, you do immense amounts of work, but it feels maybe presumptuous to me to
look at the end point of impact as a produced phenomenon, rather than as a
result of practice.

And
this brings me to your final list of proposed aspects to producing, where you
define producing impact as-

knowing
what world you want them to enter and what they should do when they get there.
Then making that happen.

Which seems quite different than the sort of community engaged
spectrum of activity you helped develop for Sophisticated Ladies and instead
seems to return to a much more traditional - 'lets deepen their experience of
the play's meaning for them with ancillary activities' approach.

And, we can't produce what they should do when they get there,
when they have an experience, right? We create rules, and a world ( i love your
exploration and interrogation of your own work in regard to creating a world,
by the way), and we invite them into a contract with the event, and we
construct actions…but the whole point of creating strategies for engagement and
opportunities for impact is the personal experience that we can't begin to
anticipate on an individual level, but can attempt to make as rich a space for
as possible.

So, trying to be in conversation with your proposed list, and
based on both your examples and field observation, I wonder about –

Producing the Context for Impact- Intentionally building
relationships and spaces that invite participation with the work’s dramaturgy
while simultaneously engaging the work’s resonance beyond the venue walls.

Again, thanks for the
thoughts, David.

 

I love how this works, Michael. It is exactly a conversation, as you say.

I was re-reading the post when I woke up this morning and I tripped over the phrase "knowing what they should do when they get there" and I realized that's not at all what I believe. I don't think there is a "should" first of all, and I certainly know that I don't ever know that in advance. I do have hopes that they will know, as Mr. Booth is saying, "what to do when they get there" and it does seem to be my responsibility to produce the circumstances and the environment to support that. But as to "knowing" what impact those who engage the invitation "should" have, I don't and I missed it in my writing.

I am not all the way there yet with you on the troubling nature of the notion of impact as product, but I am listening. It is crucial work to begin to disentangle the language and the gloss of assumptions in this arena from the corporate, transactional kudzu that's overtaken our larger desires for our form. Particularly for me and my colleagues who labor in the part of our world with the big buildings and heavy institutions. What I do know is that the impact has not been a "by-product", not ancillary, for me when I have felt I fulfilled my own largest desires in a project. I have produced the environment and the circumstances-- given both resources, given both stature in the process of producing the given piece, brought my full attention and capacity to dream, organize, lead, follow, and prevail over obstacles, to that aspect of the endeavor. I have not, I guess I mean, left this part of the responsibility to chance.

Can you look at something with me on this? I think it is of consequence that the notion of the impact is something that follows the notion of the audience. I think about this notion of audience design as that part of the engagement work that you are talking about, and it precedes in my experience the notion of what sort of environment and circumstances are going to foster and support impact. So perhaps there's something more detailed to address around the question of the "producing the audience" phase so that this is fully expressed and sets up the "impact" work more precisely.

What I know in my heart is that I am not comfortable, as a producer, with the idea that it is enough to simply deal with the people who will naturally show up, naturally feel themselves invited via our marketing and programming choices, who will naturally feel their sense of themselves confirmed in the transaction. That is what happened with the puppet opera. It was a success on all those levels. But upon reflection it feels less successful on my part.

The major critics (and many lifelong theater goers and makers) bristle at this notion of surrounding the play, "what's on stage", in this way-- of not "letting the play speak for itself". But I feel that stops short of my responsibility in that it only invites the choir, it turns our engagement with each other into a transaction, it only confirms the righteousness of their choice to accept the invitation, and it leads to a diminished, rarified presence of theater in the culture. (Is it "the culture"? "The community"? "Civic discourse"? Words are falling apart...)

And so, I now always parallel the process of producing the show/play/work/piece (words!) with the process of audience design, which is a process and is itself engagement.

And from that engagement process, the work of building relationships with those we'd like to invite, emerges the set of ideas and the path for supporting the impact.

Or so it seems this morning.

morning, David- before the day's meetings begin,a quick response- i am thinking about your ask regarding the notion of impact following audience, and the disentangling of assumptions regarding corporate/trend business language as the default paradigm for us in the arts, especially the not for profit sector, and where it leads me is back to your assertion that sophisticated ladies and the Kornbluth projects engaged people that never saw the shows.

So right there, if you speak a language of valuing those interactions as meaningful, and you identify those 'participants/engaged folks' as audience (which is a big if that Doris Duke and many other funders are dealing with right now...)then i would suggest that impact is actually not just a substitute for growing the number of people you bring to the story you have chosen to tell, but rather a way to reframe building investment (meaning, stakeholders) in the conversation you are initiating through the play you are making by engaging constituents in activities before, during and after the moments in a shared space with the actors. In some settings, that means building the show through research based interactions with community. In some settings, it means launching inquiries around a city that move a conversation forward with the helpful impetus of an existing script-based production that can catalyze public discourse...and sometimes it means discourse akin to community organizing that evolves because diverse non arts partners have been introduced through the coalition building of a production team intentionally getting people in rooms who might not ordinarily be in conversations about a certain issue together...
audience design, when we introduced the term to Woolly a few years back, referred to how Sojourn for years has believed that the richness of the events we were creating was as dependent on the ideological, cultural, generational and geographic diversity of the audience/participants as it was dependent on the caliber of our aesthetic excellence- that we are responsible for making the best effort we can to develop the potential for challenging and multivalent landscapes for our shows (especially our participatory shows) to encounter. And that we have to always put the energy into that alongside the creation of the show process- that they are not separate processes. Sometimes, we do ok with that, sometimes we don't meet our own goals.
I think the exploration of impact and audience is the exploration that Irvine is pursuing with the study on participation, and i think its at the heart of the efforts (including TCG's Audience (Re)Evolution) to figure out how to scale rigorous engagement practice up and down the institutional size and resource ladder. I think you putting a conversation rooted in personal investigation of your own artist/producer values is a great invitation for all of us to be doing the same. thanks for that.

David and Michael:

I feel privileged to have been in dialogue with each of yourecently, although separately, about projects and issues related tangentiallyto the current discussion. Forgive mefor getting semantical, but perhaps the word “impact” is so thorny here becauseit is the wrong word. Perhaps the word we should be using is “change.” If weconsider the way art changes people – both the makers and the audience – we maybe able to parse out which “entertainments” are art and which are not. As you know, I dissented from Booth’s viewsin the twitter conversation. The impact of art isn’t always about entering a newworld. Sometimes – often, I think, intheatre – it’s about seeing the world we already live in in a new way, a changed way. I agree with Michael that “impact”(or change) is not the product, it is the result of the product, which is theart. You may recall our phone call in which you asked me “what is NOTinfrastructure,” and my response was “the product,” the work. However, the change it elicits, through thefeedback loop of community, becomes part of the infrastructure for the next “product.”

I think we maybe understand the words differently but dwell in the same place and spirit, Linda. I guess, for me, to see the world in a new way is to see a new world. And in that, if I am changed in some way- if I see a world anew or a new world-- I have been impacted. And, in that, I'm not sure the play's audience is the entire universe of people who are candidates for being changed or impacted by it-- the production is a product, yes, but not the product, for me. The show is an avenue to change or impact people, as is the process through which it is made, as is the discourse it sparks in the community where it takes place, as is the trail it leaves after it closes. And what I mean when I talk about "producing the impact" is probably better stated as producing the infrastructure for impact or change.

Michael, David, Linda. I have been sitting here working at several responses to this awesome conversation, which is so near and dear to my current processes. But it does take a tangent or two from the initial conversation and post. Is it appropriate or a derailment to move the conversation along here? Or can we keep expanding elsewhere?

Okay then (and thanks!):

Verymuch loving this conversation, you all. Thank you.

One thing I'd like to add to the mix, is this: Asan artist working on a participatory piece in numerous communities right now, which can only work if a broad range ofpeople are engaged with it at each step of the way, I need my presenting and institutionalpartners to be okay with discomfort and the possibility of failure WITHIN theprocess itself. I need and appreciate partners who can work with me totrouble-shoot options, try out hunches, and double-back on missteps, withoutworrying that the whole project is doomed, wrongheaded or problematic. Realcommunity engagement needs presenting and producing partners who can be part ofthe artistic process, and it needs artists who can welcome that.

I bring this up because it often seems likeeveryone wants a way to have more impact, bring in more audiences and expandthe boundaries of what we do, but we sometimes lack the real knowledge of whatthat entails. I wouldlove to see a continued revealing of best practices and the less-than-best attemptsamong artists and venues for making this kind of work happen with the integrityit demands, and with the embrace of risk (real no-joke risk) it alsodemands. Linda, I think your values-based approach to institutionalmissions, which you mentioned in a previous post, is key here.

In my experience, with City Council Meeting, andpreviously with work like Open House at The Foundry, opening the process itselfto risk and invention with strangers is not comfortable.But we have to risk that it won't work in order to get the right partnersto buy in, in order to allow all participants as much three-dimensional agencyas they can have, in order to acknowledge ourselves as sometimes being bothwithin and without a particular community. And, perhaps most importantly, tomake the work as strong as it can be. If the people we want to draw intothe work see us making ourselves vulnerable, and see our institutions makingthemselves vulnerable, perhaps the are going to be more willing to join us. And then impact comes out of intent, and is harder to measure yet more deeply felt.

This is a tricky pursuit. I think it's soworthwhile though. I’m finding, as we work in multiple cities, the samestrategies don’t engage the same way twice. So it becomes more about relying onour curiosity, our compassion and our graciousness. I’m finding myself withouta model and in that I feel like the process has been liberated.

It's great to see you guys working on it so rigorously.In continuity with what Michael's saying above, I think all partners describingtheir questions or intentions, throughout a process, is key. I often askcollaborators, “What do you want to get from this?” And I’m realizing I shouldask it more of the institutions that present or produce me.

I'd also recommend Claire Bishop's new bookArtificial Hells, which delves deeply into the politics of participation andspectatorship in visual-art based performance. It's really really good.

Aaron: This is tangential, but I pick up on your comment "I’m finding, as we work in multiple cities, the same strategies don’t engage the same way twice." It seems, more so even than politics, all audiences are local; this nation is so vast. It will be interesting to hear from you about how your experience here in Temple differs from that in Boston and elsewhere. This concepts support, I think, what both you and Michael are saying...reception will differ from place to place and artists should interrogate (in a good way) the uniqueness of the culture in which they make work -- as I know you both do. [BTW, I'm over at Cartel Coffee... are you on your way?]

"I would love to see a continued revealing of best practices and the less-than-best attempts among artists and venues for making this kind of work happen with the integrity it demands, and with the embrace of risk (real no-joke risk) it also demands."

This, in our early toddler-sort-of-fumbly way is what we are trying to build around The Commons-- a knowledge platform for this and other big questions/priorities of the field, Aaron. Thank you for your contribution here-- and please share more as you go!

"I’m finding, as we work in multiple cities, the samestrategies don’t engage the same way twice."

Isn't this, in some ways, a beautiful thing to be reminded, though? It is the confirmation that there is, in fact, a deeper value in producing locally-- even when what you are working from has been created outside your community. The founders of the regional theater knew this but we have drifted very far from that. I'm sure it's a beast, producing the engagement anew every time, and you are tackling it on such a huge canvas with this project, but it is also what the piece seems to be about: being deeply local every time. And, it says that even if every regional theater in the country decided to do the same play, the engagement and the impact would be locavore.

Did you see the data on RUINED in the Intrinsic Impact study, though? They found there that the production at Arena Stage and the production at Berkeley Rep had almost identical impact charts for the audiences even though the productions were vastly different and the engagement models completely localized. What do your experience and the experience of Ruined teach, taken together, I wonder?

I love the notion of being liberated by the lack of a model. I would love, as a producer, to be able every time to foster that sort of liberation without creating a sense of "nobody knows what they fuck they are doing around here!" The more we strive to institutionalize and corporatize the infrastructure around the artists, the more we impose templates and frames that don't capture the best of what was possible when we all set out on the journey together. I think about this stuff all the time-- it was why the residencies at Arena were designed with so little structure, why the New Play Development Program we ran for the NEA supported so many different processes and aesthetics, and why the National Theater Pilot projects are so all over the map. In each case we are seeing the artists and the producers defining the model together as an intrinsic part of design process for the project.

I am going to find the book you recommend. It sounds directly on point for the set of questions I am carrying around about barriers to participation in my new context.

And finally, can I just call out your commitment to asking the question "What do you want to get out of this?" I always try to understand that of anyone I'm mentoring and anyone I'm in collaboration with. I ask it of the artists I produce as well-- whether it is a development step or a stop on a tour. But I don't know that I've taken the time to articulate my own side of that as fully-- I've not always shared what I am hoping to get from it, particularly as a producer or presenter, for myself or my institution. And isn't that a place where we can hurt each other, ultimately-- let each other fail tests we didn't let anyone know they were taking?

Sorry to be slow in the uptake here, Michael. Yes, yes, and yes. I think this is exactly what I am trying to say about the times I feel I've hit the goal and when I feel I've landed only in the vicinity of it. The shows that have, as part of the design of the overall path to production, layered in the intention of building the world in such a way that it both reached and engaged people broadly (people who wouldn't even be able to be in the theater with us, people who didn't even understand sometimes that a play had been in the center of what was happening) and deeply (in ways that reverberated long after, opened worlds before and during, echoed through life choices, triggered empathic reactions to "others"-- any from a long list of possible indications of "deeply") are the ones for me that reverberate for me still as moments of success. And I stress "for me" in this formulation because, as you say, this is a personal investigation in a public space-- these are the things I am asking now of myself in my work.

I think about the impact The Peoples Temple project had, all along its development path and long before it opened, on the lives of survivors and family members of the Jonestown tragedy and, in the performing of it, on the Bay Area community which had been home to the Temple. And a desire for all of that impact was at the core of the reason for taking on the project in the first place-- four very hard, very emotional, very enlarging years. A play, two films, a book, an archive, a complete list of the names of those who died, and hours and hours of public conversations came of it, but so, too, did forgiveness, redemption, understanding, re-opened wounds (not our goal, but we were naive), old relationships rekindled, old battles reignited, old losses finally grieved, old questions still unanswered, closeted shames brought into the sunlight and evaporated, finally, after decades. The process of making it, and the making of the "challenging and multivalent landscape" for that project, took place as a parallel effort to the one that aimed at "growing the number of people" we would bring to the story. The impact itself is still knocking about in the world like a ball bearing in a pinball ball machine ten years after we started on it. The play itself is rarely produced, but the people it impacted still hold that recouped corner of the universe.

I think the question of scaling up and down the resource ladder is a very worthy one to wrestle with, with huge potential to advance the effort of the nonprofit theater to fulfill its promise. So striking to me, though, that the ones that are most effective and committed in this sort of practice are the more lightly institutionalized, near as I can tell. Size and resources seem to inhibit rather than enable these intentions-- or is that just cynicism?

I wonder, too, if there's a value in thinking about tuning the effort across the spectrum of the "art/entertainment" scale. When I think of the work of Sojourn, or Aaron Landsman, or The Foundry, or Appalshop, and then about aesthetics like the Jay Scheib piece World of Wires that I just saw here in Boston or Wooster Group or Rude Mechs' Method Gun, and then bounce those off of Sophisticated Ladies and Oklahoma or the brace of productions of Good People or Other Desert Cities or Shakespeare this season (and so on and so on in celebration of the great diversity of aesthetics and form in our theater)-- when I do all that, I wonder what we are learning (or could we learn) from bridging the intention of a work like City Council, which Aaron writes about below, and the intention of a work like Einstein on the Beach, with a stopover at The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity and Paris Commune.

As one who produces in all of these realms, when I talk about producing impact, maybe what I really mean is taking the responsibility for making or causing (to use the definition from above in Erin's post) the rigorous engagement-- regardless of the aesthetic terrain or impulse the creative teams are working in. I think I am wrestling, for myself, with the degree to which so much of our field seems to let ourselves off the hook for that piece of it, or name it "ancillary" (and therefore a luxury, rather than a responsibility) or, in the case of those who argue the "art for arts' sake" line, actually feel absolved of responsibility for relevance or impact. In trying to be clear about the responsibilities and opportunities of mentorship of a new generation of producers, I am aiming to embed-- in the learning-- a set of values that calls them to proceed from a place that names the impact/engagement as central to the role no matter what type of theater they eventually intend to produce and regardless of institutional context.

Michael, I'm not so sure that we can't produce impact, if we have the intentionality to do so. I think too often the work (even as expanded a version of the work as what Sojourn does) is felt to at some point come up against the audience member in a way that makes it lose some of the intentionality of its trajectory - setting up a situation like you outline, where the work is produced, and the impact is hoped for. But in other industries they produce impacts all the time. Partisan political rhetoric, for example, can be carefully tuned to produce impact, and politicians and their machine are constantly trying to generate those phrases that engender such action (Romneyhood, Obamacare, death panels, etc). In those cases, or perhaps in some of them, the goal isn't simply to have an impact happen, it is to create a particular impact--to engender a particular outcome. Why can't a piece of art do that? Setting aside whether it should, why can't an artistic (or entertainment, for that matter) experience (the full, rounded, immersive, connectivity-laden experience Dower describes) be about producing impact? When Mike Daisey finished Steve Jobs (pre-scandal), he produced an impact--a very targeted and specific impact--the outcome of which was a strong desire in a large chunk of his audience to actually go out and take action to voice their displeasure with Apple. I have the data, actual numbers indicating that outcome. To say it wasn't intentional, that it wasn't somehow manufactured deliberately, seems to not give a particular type of art a particular type of credit.

i hear you, clayton. We just may disagree on two points- 1, You are talking about outcomes. Rhetoric doesn't aim at impact in political discourse; it aims at outcome. Advocacy/message theatre aims at action/outcome. And 2, politicians produce ads, speeches and strategies aiming at impact to achieve an outcome- impact isn't a product. Its a result of products, or what is produced. It is certainly semantics at this point, but my sense is that David is wrestling not so much with outcome, but experience and affect.