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.
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.