Essay by

Truthiness in the Politics of Theater

Essay by

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?”

A man smiling at the camera
P. Carl. Photo by Asia Kepka.

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Honor

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.

Bookmark this page

Log in to add a bookmark

Interested in following this conversation in real time? Receive email alerting you to new threads and the continuation of current threads.

subscribe

Comments

47
Add Comment
Newest First

So much good stuff is in this piece and the comments below. Something that has long puzzled me is the practice of lying when it comes to the appreciation of a piece of art. I do my best to respond to theater with integrity--to praise what moves me and to be polite and find something redeeming in a work that doesn't resonate with me. There are times when I am offended by the misogyny, racism or classicism (or all three) of a play and yet I am not comfortable addressing my criticisms to the individual/s and or institution. It doesn't feel like a community with an open dialogue to say things that are critical, and yet I and others do it behind backs all the time. Is it out of a desire to be liked? To not be on the receiving end? To not be ostracized? A truth need not be factual, it is just as often an expressed opinion, and as a group we agree to lie when necessary. Sometimes I lie to preserve a friend's delicate ego, sometimes I lie by saying nothing at all, sometimes, I half lie, by finding something positive to say and reserving the rest of my opinion for conversations without the artist. I don't actually know the respectful thing to do. When do I keep rage and disappointment to myself? When do I attempt to constructively and thoughtfully share a negative response or ask questions about the artist's intentions? It is case by case--who's an underdog and needs boosting, who's seasoned and/or thick-skinned, and a host of other factors. One rule I've observed seems to be, on opening night, lie if you must, omit if you must, find the silver lining. Then again, there's always the Golden Rule...

Winter...I love the questions you're asking here. For one thing, the "lies" we tell to other artists about the work is one of the reasons I think as a field we're so comfortable with truthiness. I've thought about this a lot...do I just tell people I love their work because I like them and don't want to hurt their feelings? I try to discern the difference between things that just aren't my taste but I think are solid theater and then things that offend or disturb for reasons you mention. I also avoid opening night opinions...but I do try to find a way to have honest conversations with artists about their work and my experience has been that artists aren't nearly as thin skinned as we think they are, and that they welcome real dialogue about the art, when done with care and when done after taking the time to know and understand the work. And the dialogue is so meaningful, sometimes I see the work differently after the conversation, sometimes the artist does, sometimes we agree to disagree, and usually this creates a deeper bond.

A lot of thoughts from this, but let me share just two reactions.

1. I've tended to treat "not-for-profit" as an affected way of saying "non-profit," but after reading this clarion statement, I think I'll use not-for-profit from now on.

2. Your touchdown is part of a story about a glorious moment, made worth telling by the setting and perhaps its improbability as well as the length of the run. Extending it to 50 yards makes the story better, but doesn't necessarily elevate you to a higher plane or allow you to claim something you couldn't have done.

Ryan's marathon lie was about himself, not the game and not to entertain. He conferred upon himself a performance that people put in many months and even years of effort to achieve and who may still fail.

Intent and personal benefit matter when it comes to truthiness.

BIG thank you, Polly, for this fluid stream of truth. For me the core issue lies in your question,

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? Bravo to that. It should be adopted as THE non-profit values statement.

 

Thanks, Polly for stoking and tending this particular conversation. A
couple of observations:

-- I wonder at the short-sightedness of the truthiness choices made
in the realm of nonprofit theater. If we look at the political
arena, or corporate PR, we can instantly understand the cycle that spin
creates. A managed message, carefully crafted to produce "truth" from
obvious, verifiable fiction, is easily exposed. The thinking person can
see that the mirror, when held up to nature, reflects a different picture than
the one painted by the spin doctors. The thinking person then instantly
concludes: "this entity does not tell me the truth" and their
engagement fades. Look at the huge numbers of people who have opted out of our
democratic processes. Look at the larger number of us who hold our noses and
vote anyway. The corporation bets that there are fewer thinking
people than apathetic people and they keep telling their truthy tales. Fast
food, big oil, partisan media- they are all placing this bet and winning. So it
is clear why corporate theater might make the same bet. But those institutions
and individuals that are working in a space outside that market-manufactured
truth gambit are losing. Government has no credibility- less so public
officials. Healthcare struggles with its approval ratings. Churches with a
visible truthiness line have no truck with the awake.

Lewis
Hyde points out, in The Gift, that market-exchange creates “mass from mass”
where gift-exchange creates “community from mass”. At the TCG Conference, Seth
Godin gently mocked a questioner who asked how we could continue to program
risk into seasons that needed to reach the masses: “Let’s be clear: the masses
don’t care about you.” Reaching the masses is a problem for MacDonalds, the Red
Sox, and even Hollywood. It is not what any of us is doing in the nonprofit
theater—it would even be a stretch to say commercial producers are reaching
“the masses”!

So,
to crib a tactic from the “mass market” playbook and adopt it as a tactic for
our sector seems misguided, not just dispiriting.

--I
also wonder at your specific example of the truthiness between the Boards and
the leadership of the theaters. What is being gained by spinning for the people
who are, theoretically, most invested in working through our problems with us?
They are on the Board because they are deeply engaged, have expertise and
resources to call upon to help us, and it is actually an obligation of their
service to exercise governance on behalf of the public from whom we draw our
exempt status. If we cannot share the truth with them, what is our expectation
of them and how can they possibly help or discharge their responsibility toward
us and for the public? If they’re so little engaged that hard truths will drive
them away, why not let them go? If they’re only with us as “a checkbook” can we
not figure out some authentic role for them that doesn’t require obfuscation
and dereliction of duty to earn their patronage? And if we have to hide our
true nature or circumstances from them, whose interests are we serving at that
point? Most likely our own. It will be inconvenient, unhelpful, or dangerous to
let them see our doubts and failures. But what, in our mission or filing papers,
says that our personal convenience or security is an appropriate priority?

--Finally, there’s the
very deep and disturbing question of the responsibility of artists in the
proliferation of the truthiness culture. I note, in one of your comments, that
you have a concern that artists have ceded this conversation to the management.
I wonder if it isn’t more a matter of their own convenience than any real risk
to them for authentic communication—at least between and amongst each other.
How many artists have hidden behind agents when bad news had to be broken to
collaborators or institutions? How many have hidden behind their busy schedules
or their limited understanding of budgets and grants and the language of
contracts and commissions? And since the communication coming their way from
both their colleagues and the institutional folks is larded with truthiness as
well, there’s no evidence that authenticity in communication is valued or
appreciated. And, in fact, there is often evidence that it is neither. But does
that absolve us, any of us, from making the effort to deal truthfully with each
other to the best of our abilities in every interaction? At a minimum, to be
clear with the organization that you are dating other organizations for the
same opportunity, or with your collaborators that you are being courted away
from your collaboration by a different opportunity, or with each other about
our actual responses to, and interest in, each others’ work. It’s hard and
takes courage, but if we approached the task with care, with generosity and
with a shared sense of it being something we are all learning to do better,
perhaps we could make our way back to relevance, connection, and relationship
with the rest of thinking, caring people in our worlds. I was just listening to
Suzan Lori Parks answer a question from a young theater artist about how to act
from a place of what SLP was calling “personal responsibility” as an artist
interacting online or in person or through their art. SLP’s advice: “treat every interaction as a teaching moment
and a learning moment, as an opportunity to create community.” Maybe that’s a
place to start?

Such an enlightening article, thank you! I would offer that perhaps the most egregious effect of systemic corruption is the illusion that integrity has no power. A friend of mine used to work at a camera store. Against what might be considered conventional wisdom he would sometimes refer potential customers elsewhere (such as online) if he knew they could get a better deal for what they needed-- and that's just one example of how trustworthy and service oriented he is. Three years after moving on from that job (and no, he wasn't fired) people still come into the store asking for him and some of his customers have even sought him out and hired him for independent projects. Clearly he was doing something right, despite the fact that his practices may not have maximized his sales for any given day...

The commonly understood narrative regarding success assigns almost all of the credit to individual talent and tenacity, giving short shrift to integrity and generosity which inspire collective support. Perhaps the truthiness of that narrative makes dishonesty inevitable. I would hope that as theatre artists and institutions we can resolve--without self-righteousness--to be absolutely trustworthy in our affairs and thereby create the foundation for a new and sustained prosperity.

Nathan,Thanks for this thoughtful reply. I love your example. At the TCG conference this past June Seth Godin gave a similar example about a guy who owned a coffee shop who had a punch card for a free coffee that required patrons to try coffee shops all over the city. This guy loved coffee more than commerce.

Your example is such a great reminder of easy ways we can recoup notions of integrity and generosity in our daily lives. Thank you.

Nice article, Polly. I hope this keeps the conversation moving forward. I think people are more open to having it now, but sometimes we need a little prodding from someone with a lot of integrity, so thanks for providing the right prod from the right person.

My experience is that, as an artist who has also worked for funders, everyone is trying to do their best to accommodate the realities of art-making today, and yet the system rewards 'truthiness.' That problem is bigger than any one of us. But I think we do have some agency in what we're willing to say, how and to whom.

The challenge I'm giving myself, as a maker, is to let the values I espouse in my work serve as a guide for how to engage my working relationships, especially around money.

My question for the field: Are there things we rail against in our content (economic inequity, unjust or untoward labor standards, the lack of a safety net or level playing field, for instance) yet engage in with regard to expectations placed on co-workers, collaborators and employees?

But isn't this article, which I really want to like, just another well worded extension of the truthiness problem? How can we speak about truth, without being willing to even name the organizations listed as examples?

I guess I have to respectfully disagree Tony. I think naming names in this context is antithetical to the call here. If HowlRound became a place that named names, we would be one more creative venue where people were afraid to tell the truth, afraid to be called out. I believe as deeply as I believe anything that HowlRound has to be a safe place for conversation, a place where together we can muster the courage to have the hard conversations with each other.

I understand, and don't really expect agreement, so no worries :)

However, "I know a place that did a thing," is not a hard conversation. It may feel like it because we're so unskilled at being open and transparent as a field. But it's not a hard conversation to have.

If even you, David, and others in your position (in terms of career, not currently at the commons) do not feel safe having hard, specific, conversations out in the open--how on earth do we think someone just starting out can? It's an extraordinarily difficult cycle to break.

Hard conversations with each other have to be transparent and out in the open. Otherwise, it's just more truthiness, coded language, and misplaced trust.
And the cycle continues.

Hi Tony. If Polly were to name names, the fallout would overwhelm the article and the important questions it's raising. Suddenly the issue would be HowlRound accusing X theater / theater artists / theater administrators of lying and the accused defending themselves. The questions being raised here are more potent--and more universal--without the finger-pointing.

I respectfully submit that "naming names" in public is only useful as a last-ditch open, and that addressing issues like these in private, directly, is both much more difficult AND more appropriate. And I agree that Howlround ought to be a neutral ground on which problems like this can be addressed openly and with civility.

I am always wrestling with myself on this one. I don't tend to go to the "out the bastards" place in my public writing. I don't generally feel comfortable with the tactic of dragging people out of the closet, though there are times the hypocrisy is so enraging that I take true delight in watching the hypocrite exposed-- I think of the roster of moralizing preachers, politicians, and pundits who have been outed and how I've celebrated their fall. (And in those moments I don't feel like my best self.) At the same time, I recognize the maddeningly slow progress we're making on some significant issues in our field, the seemingly ubiquitous reliance on "trickle down" theories long ago discredited in policy circles outside of our sector. And I am hyper-aware that I am, personally, in a position where I am a steward of resources that create both an opportunity and a responsibility to "be the change" and I work at that with as much constancy and mindfulness as I can muster. And still it is slow and it is incremental and it is diplomatic in the best and worst senses of the word.

Here's a story about the impact of this approach that Polly has taken with this article, though. A number of different people (artists and administrators) have contacted HowlRound to ask "are you talking about me, here?" Which I find interesting. Had she taken her examples to micro-specifics of a single individual or institution, a single instance, only the named would have felt the impact. But her approach seems to have prompted questioning by numbers of people (only a percentage of whom have the desire to ask directly, I'm guessing) and perhaps engaged them in a process of self-reflection that could lead to different decisions going forward. And, I know from personal experience, that using a specific example with names and dates and numbers, would have only resulted in a bunch of discussion about that example and the reliability or fairness of the story. And I never cease to be amazed at the reflexive circling of the wagons that those in positions of true power resort to the moment one of their own is under scrutiny.

My answer, btw, to people who wonder if something is about them, is of the classic "If you have to ask..." variety.

At the same time, I have had the urge so MANY times to just get on the internet and flame folks.And I've been heavily under fire personally more than once without returning it. And I watch what actually does trickle down, and what gets strangled, from my reluctance to do it and I question whether it is cowardice or valor-- whether the long-term benefits of conducting a "positive inquiry" rather than a muckraking one outweighs the short-term consequences.

Tony is right when he says on Twitter that reading An Artistic Home today is scary and depressing around the pace and state of change-- an entire generation has passed and still the same basic problems and in many cases the exact same people in positions of authority around them.

This is both terrifying and motivating for me. I've read the book twice in the last four years, looking for clues about my own responsibilities now. And I keep talking about the small time window we have to actually make a significant and lasting impact/contribution on behalf of new plays and playwrights, especially, precisely because I don't want to be part of a second consecutive generation that sat on its assets, twiddle its thumbs, and mistook itself for the point.

Is the only way out of that fate to start a campaign of public shaming? I truly hope not. And I'm not going that way. But I understand the rage under the question.

I have almost begun to think that the less attention I pay to the people and institutions in question, the better.

If, instead of trying to publicly convince them (by whatever means) to act differently, we simply build a different system beside the flawed one, and participate as much as possible in that one instead, we will serve ourselves better.
Said another way: I've gotten to the point now at which it feels MUCH easier to build my own thing than to rail against/try to fix the long-established things. So Big Regional Theater's doing something the wrong way? Let 'em. I'll do it the right way over here. Some people will get fooled by the Big Name, but in the long run, most of us will find the honest truth and a more genuine home.

I just don't believe the only three options for a conversation are: using no actual details, mindless gossip, or a revenge fueled flame-war.

As Polly writes," Getting anyone to go on record in our profession to tell the truth is like trying to crack a CIA security code.” How can that not affect and bleed over into the work?

Polly: Thank you for this. It is very timely as I am spending the day writing a lecture on strategic planning -- but really it's a lecture on mission, vision, and VALUES. Too frequently, as you know, organizations do not articulate their values to their stakeholders. This observation applies as much to the for-profit as the non-profit world. Often values aren't articulated because nobody has sat down and asked the questions that you raise here. What if nonprofits, as a requirement of their status, were required to publish a values statement and what if -- imagine this -- organizations were held accountable to those values by their internal and external stakeholders. Plus, from a management perspective, having a values statement with teeth would make decision-making so much easier. Values would become a roadmap to everything from programming to personel policies. Just 2 cents.

Linda, completely agreed. I've been arguing for awhile now that nonprofits must have an ethics statement that sits right along there mission statement. I'm working on the ethics statement for the Center for the Theater Commons now. Am going to do this in conjunction with some members of the broader community and will plan to put out there sometime in the next few months. Let me know what you come up with in terms of a value statement, think we should start sharing these so we can all learn from each other.

Enron had a glorious values statement, but it had no way and possibly no intention of measuring whether it was living by the values.

When I ran my company, we surveyed every employee on three or four dimensions of each value, as well as encouraged open-ended responses. As the leader, I then reported the results back to employees and responded to their comments. My goal was to have the indexes rise across the board each year as a way to see that people in the organization got it, were seeing it in their leaders and were doing it themselves.

I'd encourage you to incorporate something like that.

Charlie!Great to see you here. I so agree about what you're saying. I feel the same way about mission statements. Everyone has them but what do they mean. And maybe they are achieving the mission but through what means? I like what you're proposing here a lot, a way to make sure values have meaning to the people in the organization. It's also why I argue for ethics statements too, because missions and values should always be held up to the means used to achieve them and for me, ethics implies the means. Of course we can create all the statements in the world and they will only mean something if we live by them.

Your practice is very helpful in this regard.

Here are the values for my marketing communications company:

OUR WORK Intelligent Creation

We work because we enjoy the stimulation and satisfactionof using our brains. Our work reflects deep understanding and careful analysis, as well as feeling and intuition.

OUR CLIENTS Integrity and Respect

Our relationships are based on openness, reciprocity andmutual respect. We seek relationships with people and organizations that valuecommunication, share ownership of ideas and have high but realisticexpectations.

OURSELVES Responsible Independence

We are accountable for doing our assigned jobs, but arefree to act within our abilities to go beyond expectations. Skills, knowledge, energy and commitment more than job titles define our roles.

Note that each statement implies questions to ask ourselves. For example, is my work stimulating? Is it satisfying? Do my clients respect me? This is a different interrogation than talking about the institution or positioning ourselves to the marketplace.

If an employee can't answer these in a strong affirmative, it points to other questions and potential problems in the organization.

To underscore the point I made earlier, this has to be a deep, ongoing dialogue that involves leaders and staff and points to change where it's needed and celebration where it's being lived up to.

One last point. I sold the company to two key employees. They were talented and could have gone elsewhere, but because it was clear to all of us that we had bought into the same values, the company had more value to them than going elsewhere and avoiding the risk of ownership.

Brilliant essay. Last week, I wrote a blog about the nonprofit/for-profit issue that got nothing but reproaches from artists and thank yous from funders. Funny that.

Thanks, Polly. There's so much truth here. Two thoughts: Just this morning San Francisco's public radio discussed the issue of truthfulness in today's politics and society with a Stanford researcher who talked about how easy it is to become desensitized to our own lies, especially if we believe them to be socially acceptable (everyone else is lying in a similar way). So we spin like crazy to our boards, to the press, to our constituents, and we lose the dizzy awareness of our own prevaricating. Second, your observation that we need a way of measuring our success that is different from our commercial colleagues, or our corporate board members, couldn't be truer. That of course does not mean that nonprofit theaters won't have to balance their books or think about marketing and tickets sales, but it does mean we cannot stop asking ourselves why are we doing what we're doing? For whom? And is our work making a difference? Is it making the difference we hoped to make?

Brad, I couldn't agree more with everything you say here. And that part about losing awareness is so true. I have to check in with myself daily around what I'm communicating to others and to what degree am I convincing myself. And per Linda's comment above, I think more nonprofits with value and ethics statement could help here.

Much food for thought here. Thanks so much for penning this, Polly. It also made me think about the enormous pressure individual artists as well as institutions face to create a "success narrative" (which you reference in the article) and achieve a certain kind and quality of results that can corrupt the process by which we make our work and the relationships we try to build with each other and our audience. From the overwhelming messages we daily face in our culture down to the rewards and consequences built into our fiscal models and funding processes we are, in many ways, encouraged toward "truthiness".

As the Artistic Director of a small fledgling theatre collective I find us wrestling with these very questions - who are we? what kind of work shall we make? how do we want to make that work? what do we care about? and maybe most importantly - how do we hold ourselves accountable to these ideals and practices?

it seems to me that in order to find our way to a unique and valuable position in this society as theatre makers we must be willing to admit our complicity in the dynamic we find ourselves shaped by and participating in and somehow find the courage to begin to make choices to shift the narrative around the work we choose to do and how we do it. this strikes me as noble and necessary work.

Polly - I think you left out one of the biggest and most egregious areas of deception in non-profits - the grant process. Whether it is the way a theater describes itself or it's success in their application, how they ultimately spend the money they receive, or the exaggeration with which they report their expenditures and accomplishments, the grant process is often riddled with half-truths and bold faced lies. We've all heard or given the excuses - it is difficult to get the money you need when you need it, the whole non-profit system is broken so this is the only way to succeed, etc. While some of these complaints may be well founded they don't justify a culture of deception. It harms the granting institution by giving them bad data, it harms future applicants because they will be greeted with skepticism or more hoops to jump through, and it harms anyone who wants to learn from the work that was funded by the grant. To say nothing of the harm it does the institution that in deceiving their granter also deceives itself. Abusing the granting process is understandable, who hasn't been tempted to move around funds in the face of the ongoing economic struggle that plagues the arts, but how can we hope to grow if the information we feed on is junk food?

I wrote an essay much like this once. It got 1,600 comments and was adapted into a successful independent film. At least that's what I'm going to say on my next grant application.

I wonder whether we have almost arrived at a time in which honesty will become the most shocking act we can commit.

And yet I also wonder whether, if anyone committed it, anyone else would notice. What are the markers of honesty?

How can we measure it, furthermore, or ascertain its existence? Is honesty like some sort of quantum particle: if we measure its position, we can't know its momentum, and vice-versa? Even if we were looking for honesty, in other words, would we be able to tell when we found it?

I know Gwydion. This worries me too. And because truth and honesty aren't one thing but complicated tapestries we often give up on the whole idea of telling the truth before we even try. But I feel we must battle over truth and honesty, we owe it to the next generation of theater makers.

Thanks for this essay, Polly. I think you eloquently make the case, without ever using the word, for a field wide dramaturgy that interrogates our collaboration, process and narrative as rigorously as we attempt to shape our new work.

So many great points here, in the article and the comments. I'll just add one more: Accountability. It's hard to have truth-telling without some kind of structure of accountability, AND-- a huge problem--some kind of equity in power between participants in the conversation. (Recent financial collapse, anyone? ) To return to Polly's examples: What do not-for-profit boards do when they aren't getting the full picture from theaters' ADs? Anything? What steps do theaters take to de-commission playwrights who don't meet deadlines because of undisclosed overcommitments? (Also... why are all the theaters chasing the same few flavor-of-the-month playwrights instead of steadfastly building relationships over time from among the rich and diverse field of talented voices out there? Isn't "diversity" supposed to be a core value at just about every non-profit theater? But I digress.) Where are the unpleasant consequences for NOT telling the truth (as one sees it, at least)?

Suppose I see a play that I think is facile and plays off easy stereotypes, but has done very well in recent seasons round the country. I believe it has been staged by a particular large theater for cynical reasons---that it's easily digestible for an audience and will make money and get warm reviews--and yet this theater's mission statement and play publicity (like many of them) drips with words like "challenging" and "edgy" and "hot". What am I going to say, and where? Firstly, it's such common practice that pointing out any one example seems like random malice. If I criticize the play, I'm a mean, whiny playwright who's motivated by personal envy rather than having a genuine critique. If I criticize the theater, same.

I think the structure-of-accountability problem underlies the difficulty of having a constructive critical dialogue in such a case. There is no serious or measurable accountability to the frothy language of the mission statement and the publicity around the play, even though this language is part of the very bones of the theater's not-for-profit rationale for funds. If "challenging," "edgy" and "hot" actually meant something specific aesthetically or politically, then we could talk with some accountability about the work and where it landed with reference to those claims. We could have a serious conversation in the public sphere about the work without the taint of personal attack. To be clear: Putting on a facile, fun play is a fine thing to do if that's what you like, but pretending it's "something else", because you got public money to do "something else", is not.

In fact I wonder whether the not-for-profit structure itself inclines theaters to this kind of hypocrisy. Not all art seeks to uplift and educate, and the argument (which I believe) that it's worthwhile in itself for the ability to create complexity and express the ineffable-- has all but been abandoned in favor of the easier argument of its instrumental value in promoting other goals (education, moral uplift, etc.)

Lastly, there is so much confusion and dishonesty about money in this country that it affects the conversation in the theater. We have to talk about who has control over the means of production before anything that happens in the not for profit theater makes political sense. The gross financial inequities between freelance artists and artistic directors and in-house theater staff, and most of all between unpaid or lowly paid interns and everyone else, militate against truth telling. Especially stinky is the way that class privilege is hidden in the intern system.... who can afford to work for a pittance for a year, if not people from wealthy families--who also, coincidentally, tend to be white?

I felt a real pang at Zelda F.'s quoted comments comparing the not-for-profit theater to a public library. Because libraries still (besieged as they are) feel like places that are not secretly run for profit, status, and personal advancement. They feel like places that are trying to do what they say they are doing, open to everyone who wants to come in and read.

Great article Polly. There is a lot to be said about integrity. I love the beginning of this conversation. One of the things you touch on is our ability to talk about the value our art creates in terms that are accurate even if, like a political speech, they aren't formed in sound bites. It is incredibly valuable to recoup some corner of the universe for understanding and enlargement. The Commons seems to be a an ideal place to remind us of how to have these conversations. Thank you. I'm still going to drop your name whenever I can, and I still believe it was greatest catch in Notre Dame history.