Truthiness in the Politics of Theater
We assume that politicians are without honor. We read their statements trying to crack the code. The scandals of their politics: not that men in high places lie, only that they do so with such indifference, so endlessly, still expecting to be believed. We are accustomed to the contempt inherent in the political lie.
—Adrienne Rich, Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying
What Kind of Country Do We Want to Live In?
The other day I found myself on the phone with a reporter of a major newspaper. He was trying to tell the truth about a big theater that isn’t telling the truth. I heard myself say to the reporter, who was so frustrated by the lack of transparency in the nonprofit theater: “It’s weird right? Getting anyone to go on record in our profession to tell the truth is like trying to crack a CIA security code.”
A few days later, I watched Paul Ryan give his speech to the Republican National Convention, and the Twitter stream fact checkers were calling out the lies almost before they were uttered. Most astonishingly Fox News reported, “Ryan’s speech was an apparent attempt to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech.” When Fox is reporting that the Republicans are lying, one has to wonder if lying is even an offense worth calling out. I thought when this moment came, when we finally acknowledged at the level of public discourse that all stories are in some part a lie, I would feel relief. The very acknowledgment that truth is something to be contested is something I have argued in my intellectual and creative life forever: defining truth is a form of power, not a form of reportage. All to say, that I’m not that shocked by all the lying at the level of politics, the stakes are high and power grabs at any cost de rigueur. And I would argue along with The New York Times blogger and philosopher Jason Stanley that our enthusiastic and unapologetic embrace of the lie at the level of politics has reached an all-time high (or low), so much so: that the public’s trust in public speech, whether by politicians or in the media, has disintegrated, and to such a degree that it has undermined the possibility of straightforward communication in the public sphere. And when Stanley asks, “Is it possible that we are all culprits perpetuating this culture of “truthiness” on the political stage?”
I wonder to what degree the American nonprofit theater is embracing this cultural moment of profound murkiness around the truth in ways that may come back to bite us later on. In a field based on telling stories and embracing lies for the sake of greater truths, is straightforward communication in the American theater something we should strive for? Are we comfortable that the marketing and communication departments of our LORT theaters are as versed in “spin” as the communication departments of the White House? Do we use lies in our profession for the sake of a greater good, or rather to make ourselves seem like the political and corporate cultures whose definitions of success we are embracing unapologetically? Should our artistic institutions simply function as a mirror to the larger culture and its practices, or is the purpose of the nonprofit to shape and suggest and argue for competing values—to perpetuate the idea that the purpose of art is to push us toward a better country and a better world? If we function with the same definitions of success as the corporate sector and spin truth using the same marketing techniques, then Mitt Romney’s assertion that the arts need to “stand on their own” without government funding will be an easy sell to the general public. Why should we get special dispensation if we’re not functioning any differently than for-profit businesses?
Producing the Truth
Truth lives at the foot of power. The battle over truth is a battle for power and for self-determination. Talking about truth is life-and-death business. Michel Foucault in Power/Knowledge lays out the stakes with clarity:
Power never ceases its interrogation, its inquisition, its registration of truth: it institutionalises, professionalises, and rewards its pursuit. In the last analysis, we must produce truth as we must produce wealth… In the end, we are judged, condemned, classified, determined in our undertakings, destined to a certain mode of living or dying, as a function of the true discourses which are the bearers of the specific effects of power.
What is critical for Foucault is that we understand that the truth is something we produce, not simply something we discover. And that the battle over truth—about what stands in for fact—has enormous consequences. The simplest example in my world is the battle over defining homosexuality. Until 1972, homosexuality was considered a psychiatric disorder. In the past forty years, we have waged a battle of language, redefined “normal,” and paved the way for new truths, new attitudes, and now most recently, new laws. And the battlefield for truth in the nonprofit theater strikes me as having everything to do with coming to some general agreement as a field around how we distinguish ourselves from the commercial sector, why we embrace the nonprofit label for reasons other than tax breaks. For me, this has everything to do with how we define success outside of the transactional (ticket sales and the market) and through impact (community and access).
How we define success and the means we employ to achieve it is reflected in the stories we tell about ourselves. And let me state for the record that I’m no poster child of honesty. I traffic in hyperbole, in part because I’m an enthusiastic person and in part because a little hyperbole always makes for a better story. For example, I could totally see myself telling the kind of lie Paul Ryan told about his marathon time. I wouldn’t pick marathons, not being a runner, but I could see exaggerating the number of points I scored in a high school basketball game. And I have a particularly good story about playing flag football in Notre Dame stadium—I caught a touchdown pass that I’ve always said was fifty yards, but I bet it was more like thirty, thirty-five yards.
Exaggeration or perhaps just overemphasis can be a staple at holiday dinners with my family, none of whom have the least idea what I do or know anything about theater. To make myself seem more impressive, I talk about the famous actors I’ve met or worked with as though that’s all I do. These exaggerations seem harmless unless I decide to run for political office, but what I find interesting about my own truthiness problem is that it perpetuates some notion of what success looks like. If I say I produced or dramaturged a show that eventually went to Broadway, I legitimize myself and my work in a way that my family can brag about to other relatives. Theaters have marched down a similar path in their efforts to make themselves seem relevant and to traffic in culturally identifiable definitions of success (like a marathon time of under three hours). Those of us who have worked with corporate board members learn to spin our success in very particular ways, ways that mesh neatly with the “for-profit” values system where success is defined in economic terms—ticket sales, grants awarded, big donations secured—and in public affirmation—Tony nominations and good press, for example.
Believing Our Own Productions
There is no “the truth,” “a truth”—truth is not one thing, or even a system. It is an increasing complexity. The pattern of the carpet is a surface. When we look closely or we become weavers, we learn of the tiny multiple threads unseen in the overall pattern, the knots on the underside of the carpet. This is why the effort to speak honestly is so important. —Rich, Some Notes on Lying
Our problem with straightforward communication has everything to do with how good we are at producing stories, at weaving those tiny multiple threads on our stages. We understand in the very fabric of our DNA as theater practitioners what Foucault is saying—that the more successful the production can persuade and convince, the more power we have to not only get our audiences to return for the next production and maybe even donate to our theater, but the more power we have to shape the country we want to live in. My concern is that our producing acumen is causing us to believe our own spin and to lose sight of what values must lie beneath our productions. We produce truths because we are driven by certain moral imperatives—most politicians start off their political careers with the very best of intentions and an idealism that drives them to believe they can change the world. But in the words of Rich, “lies are usually attempts to make everything simpler—for the liar—than it really is or ought to be.”
Three Examples of Truthiness
- Recently I learned of a theater that was forced to lay off a number of employees due to a severe fiscal crisis. The following week, the theater sent a note to the board of directors talking about the success of ticket sales for the latest production, and the layoffs were never mentioned.
- A playwright applies with two separate theaters to the same granting organization for funding from the same program but doesn’t tell either theater she’s doing so. Both theaters’ applications are jeopardized as a result.
- Though the nonprofit is defined as a charitable or educational entity in which its shareholders or trustees must not benefit financially, board members of large theaters regularly invest in commercial productions that have their “try out” in a regional theater on whose board they sit.
- I can’t even begin to give examples of the truth-telling problem we have when we talk about the lack of diversity in our institutions and on our stages. That is its own article.
How do we define success? In the first example, perhaps a fiscal crisis isn’t “success,” but layoffs and downsizing/rightsizing might be. Why not send the board both pieces of information? What are we trying to hide when we emphasize success and minimize failures? The second example is extremely common. Theater artists feel the anxiety that opportunities will only come around once. They conceal information and downplay their commitments. They take on too many commissions and fail to tell theaters that they have multiple deadlines they already can’t make. How do these omissions impact relationships between artists and theaters, and how do they negatively effect other artists waiting in the wings for their turn? Is it success and survival at any cost? In a few weeks, The Center for the Theater Commons will be publishing a major report by Diane Ragsdale on the intersection between the nonprofit and commercial theater—a report that comes out of a convening we held last November with participants from both sectors. The conversation was honest and searching and makes clear the pressures for large theaters to provide a kind of engagement for their board members and patrons around definitions of success that include Broadway transfers. My third example begs the question, why aren’t we talking about the implications of these investments, and to what degree does the intersection between nonprofit and commercial theater undermine the basic tenets of a nonprofit mission? How fine a line are we walking between board member investment in Broadway transfers and personal gain? Does this corrupt the basic truths and the moral imperatives that make nonprofits a valuable part of our culture? Do we believe in the evolving truth of late capitalism that everything is defined by its value as a transaction? These truthiness examples are complicated, and we can weave them into many patterns. It’s easy to see how a field filled with excellent producers and storytellers can produce truths that perpetuate cultural norms for defining success. But committing to honesty, to the values and ethics that originally motivated us to make a life in the arts and eschew more culturally acceptable means to success and wealth, must become the touchstone of nonprofit theaters and the artists who give it life.
Lying and Amnesia
The Liar often suffers from amnesia. Amnesia is the silence of the unconscious. To lie habitually as a way of life. . . is like taking sleeping pills, which confer sleep but blot out dreaming. —Rich, Some Notes on Lying
In a response to a blog post about public funding for the arts, David Dower locates what he calls “the value proposition and the responsibility of nonprofit status” by restating a piece of Zelda Fichandler’s testimony to Congress for why it made sense to think of theaters like churches and libraries and universities: “We made a choice to produce our plays, not to recoup an investment, but to recoup some corner of the universe for our understanding and enlargement.” And when I think about all of the board meetings I’ve sat in, and when I think of the conversations I’ve had in artistic meetings with colleagues and arts administrators, I ask myself if our overemphasis on recouping an investment isn’t a form of amnesia and a lie about the history that brings us all together.
An honorable human relationship—that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word “love”—is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other. —Rich, Some Notes on Lying
The truth is something we weave together, but what kind of thread will we use? Who will purchase the cloth? Stitch the fabric together? For me the questions are never in the results, the tapestry might be beautiful, but if the process of its making is dishonorable, I cannot love the art. If we hope to recover our memory about where we came from and what we set out to do together, we must refine the truths we produce as theater practitioners. We must move from producing convenient truths and mythologies about success and omission if we hope to recoup some corner of this country for our enlargement—if we hope to create a country where the not-for-profit means something different, something of value, something our government and our patrons can embrace with love and honor.