A Theater of YES!
“Writers for their part, almost always pander to this propensity, why they share; they inflate their imaginations and swell them out of bounds, so that they achieve gigantism, missing real grandeur….Writer and public join in corrupting each other….Finding no stuff for the ideal in what is real and true, poets, abandoning truth and reality, create monsters.” Tony Kushner quoting de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America
Five years ago, back when I was still Producing Artistic Director at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, I called Bill Rauch. Bill had just been announced as the new Artistic Director at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Though I didn’t know Bill that well, the decision to hire him was inspired. I had long thought OSF would be an incredible place to develop new plays—they had a resident acting company, most of whom lived at least part-time in Ashland.
I sent an email. “Bill, as you consider priorities in the new position, what about starting a new play program at OSF?” Within minutes I received this reply. “Yes! Let’s talk.”
And so we did. That original exchange eventually led to a consultancy with OSF, and two years later, the Black Swan Lab was launched. Bill is overly generous in crediting me for that Lab, as it was Bill’s yes and a series of yeses that followed from the amazing OSF staff that made the Lab possible.
My first meeting at OSF, I entered Bill’s office and—no surprise—a huge framed poster behind his desk in big red letters read, “YES!” I have never been a no person but I might have called myself a realist—often imagining limits and scale at the beginning of an idea—seeing a frame too early in a process, trying to keep things manageable from the outset. But Bill’s yes inspired me to start leading with yes more often.
What I have realized, working with so many expansive thinkers over the years, is that my own sense of no is often a failure of imagination. And generally this isn’t a space that I’m comfortable occupying, hence, the reason I run to theater and fiction and film where I can escape the sense of the limits I find when trying to communicate with family, colleagues, and friends. In a dark theater or nose in a book, no one can get in the way of my imagination. When reentering the real world so much feels in the way of what I hope to become. What I hope the world will become.
What I have realized, working with so many expansive thinkers over the years, is that my own sense of no is often a failure of imagination. And generally this isn’t a space that I’m comfortable occupying, hence, the reason I run to theater and fiction and film where I can escape the sense of the limits I find when trying to communicate with family, colleagues, and friends.
No Is Our Default Position
“That’s a great idea but…”
“I’m completely overwhelmed.”
“I have a hundred emails in my inbox.”
“The writing is good but it’s not for our audience.”
“We don’t do it that way here.”
“That good idea increases my workload.”
Yes feels like too big a risk. If we start from no we might be able to shop online, bake our own bread, or leave work earlier. And pop psychology has made us a culture tediously obsessed with limits and boundaries. The seemingly “healthy” idea of “personal boundaries,” that we try to instill in our children and use to remind ourselves that we don’t have to empty our bank accounts, give away our expertise, or take off our pants simply because we’re asked to, has become something about our personal comfort and maintaining the status quo. “Remember the importance of saying no to unreasonable requests, and reasonable ones from time to time, if they conflict with your plans.” But good ideas will almost always conflict with your plans to proceed with business as usual! For every yes poster, I’ve seen a thousand “no means no” signs. And this notion of potentially world changing ideas being an affront to some arbitrary limits around my personal boundaries worries me. How does your good idea put me at risk? The sense that we’re all so overwhelmed often stops us from even sharing our good idea in the first place. Assuming no from the outset may give us more free time but makes our thinking sluggish and dull.
Theater Activities that Perpetuate No Script Reading is the quintessential no activity. If you’ve ever read new plays for a living, you know what I mean. Supply far outweighs demand and you seek your no as quickly as you can, hopefully in the first ten pages. A super fast way to get to no is to go to page one and count the number of characters in the play—though playwrights have gotten savvy to this by writing plays with smaller casts. But if you get past the character descriptions, many other opportunities to say no present themselves:
No, I’ve never heard of that writer.
No, that playwright didn’t go to Yale, Brown, Julliard or….
No, we don’t do magical realism, direct address, natural realism, musical theater….
Casting. Taylor Mac just covered this in a recent HowlRound piece, so I won’t go into too much detail. But again, in a world where supply outweighs demand, we try to get quickly to no through:
No, she’s not the right type.
No, he’s not the right age.
No, she’s not the right size.
We spend less time thinking about how acting might overcome this sense of no and more time plotting our character limits.
Directing done competently can be similarly interested in no as in: “No, that’s not what I think the play is about.”
We can forget that sometimes other collaborators might have better ideas, and perhaps a yes to an unplanned idea for sound, or lights, or costumes could illuminate meanings we never considered.
The Building. Who knew buildings could have such no capacity.
No, we don’t have space for that.
No, you can’t rehearse here.
No, that talkback will mean front of house has to stay too late.
No, that lobby design will impact traffic flow.
Marketing. And then we battle over our image and our message.
No, that doesn’t fit inside of our brand.
No, our audience won’t understand that.
No, that won’t sell tickets.
The Future. And all of the no’s of the theater add up to a potential no to what’s next for the theater. I hear proud Luddites in our field proclaim that our difference from other art forms is to be embraced and not overcome. We’re a live art form and should act as a refuge from online isolation. But I wonder if this embrace doesn’t have a no embedded in it. Let’s not distract ourselves with a changing world so we can say:
No to technology.
No to social media.
No to livestreaming.
No to the blogosphere.
No to transparency.
No Usually Starts with I
I’ve written about this before, about the “I” proposition of theater. And I’ve caught myself many times in meetings with colleagues when they’re sharing some new idea with great enthusiasm, except the idea isn’t new to me, or it’s an idea I’ve already considered, or it’s an idea that might upend a path I’m on with a project, and I interject with “But I…” And this “but I” becomes my way to saying no to imagination and possibility.
Tony Kushner states it much more eloquently than I in his essay “With a Little Help from my Friends”:
Way down close to the bottom of the list of evils Individualism visits on our culture is the fact that in the modern era it isn’t enough to write; you must also be a Writer, and play your part as protagonist in a cautionary narrative in which you fail or triumph, be in or out, hot or cold. The rewards can be fantastic; the punishment dismal; it’s a zero sum game, and its guarantor of value, its marker is that you pretend you play it solo, preserving the myth that you alone are the wellspring of your creativity.
No in the rehearsal room is often a result of whoever deems him/herself the locus of the wellspring.
And so we battle to dominate as the “I” of our universe at the expense of saying yes to our imagination.
But good ideas will almost always conflict with your plans to proceed with business as usual!
Some Stories of Yes!
Small personal moments of yes: HowlRound came about because of a yes. Just over a year ago I was having dinner with David Dower at the TCG Conference in Chicago and said I had a dream of starting a journal, something more than a personal blog, something that might ignite conversations in the field. He said yes that night, and asked me what I needed to make it happen. Three weeks later I had resources to begin.
When I was working at the Playwrights’ Center, Dominique Serrand approached me and asked me to support a devised ensemble piece with a group of Playwrights’ Center playwrights. I didn’t have enough resources to do it alone so I called Marc Masterson, then at Actor’s Theatre Louisville, who said yes without seeing a script or really even a scrap of an idea. That resulted in a beautiful new piece of theater, Fissures, at Humana a year later. Marc and I said yes to a group of artists we trusted who had an idea they wanted to explore together.
Kyoko Yoshida, then at Arts Midwest in Minneapolis, approached me around 2004 and proposed creating an international exchange project between the U.S. and Tokyo. I had never been to Japan, never been very involved with translations, but a yes resulted in a five-year project, fourteen new translations, fourteen staged readings, two full productions, and lasting collaborations between American and Japanese theater artists.
Some recent world changing moments of yes: Angels in America is one of the best examples of a theater community saying yes—yes to a two-part play, each part three or more hours, yes to a huge cast, yes to a lengthy development process, yes to the gigantism of a playwright's vision of what America is and can become.
Martha Lavey at Steppenwolf produces a controversial play by Bruce Norris, The Pain and the Itch. The audience reacts strongly and needs to talk about it and Martha says yes. She puts in place a talkback after each performance. The response is so positive that Steppenwolf is still doing a talkback after every single performance in their season. In six years more than 90,000 people have stayed after a play to talk about theater!
Michelle Hensley has a vision of bringing the highest quality theater to patrons who can’t pay because they reside in prisons or homeless shelters. This producing model is brutal. Because costumes and set are minimal, the acting has to be first-rate. And the actors have to endure tough conditions, lugging set pieces and musical instruments as only the performers are allowed in the prisons. And a community embraces Michelle’s company and Ten Thousand Things emerges as one of the finest producing companies in the country because the most talented directors and actors say yes to an all but forgotten audience.
I love that Kushner calls this kind of transformative/grandiose imagination a form of pretentiousness:
Pretentiousness is risky; a vast, amorphous, self-generative anxiety comes with equally vast and amorphous territory one has chosen to cover. One is highly susceptible to ridicule and possessed of such a number of flanks that it is impossible to protect them all.
Saying yes can be utterly pretentious and one must possess a certain naiveté and fearlessness to jump into the unknown of yes. No provides so much more certainty in our lives.
And at the risk of sounding pretentious, perhaps it is all much simpler than we imagine to bring transformation to this profession: someone has a good idea, someone else says yes, the I’s become a we, and a new world order is born.