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Why the Crowd? Why a Culture Coin?

Essay by

“My head was full of misty fumes of doubt.”

—Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road

In 1990, I was organizing union farmworkers in Deland, Florida. I had just graduated with a master’s degree in peace studies and was on course to change the world. A few months into the work, I began visiting the families of the young people I was working with in a youth group. It was an extremely hot day in late August, and I found myself in a one-room trailer sharing a meal with a lovely family of seven from northern Mexico. We huddled close. They taught me how to make corn tortillas, and put up with my imperfect Spanish. They brought me into their confidence immediately, and they fed me many more times in my year on the job. We became friends, and over time they shared many stories with me of their journey across the border, their work picking ferns in a field twelve hours a day, six days a week, the family members still in Mexico that they hoped to bring to the United States. They were undaunted by their circumstances, and I found myself paralyzed by my own, unclear how to make a difference, frightened by the futility of what seemed meager efforts..

In a fog of unknowing, I knew I had to move on from my dream of being a community organizer—I didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t know how to escape the “I” of I feel helpless, and turn it into the “We” of we can do something about this. That year I turned inward and more fully embraced my own comfort zone.

I read all of Zora Neale Hurston. She was from Eatonville, Florida, and her father had been a tenant farmer. Maybe there would be answers inside the pages. And I applied to a Ph.D. program to study feminist theory, literary criticism, and film.

I never lost my conviction, my core belief that I had a personal responsibility to work toward a more equitable planet, but for a pretty long stretch, the connection between my idealism for social justice and my passion for the arts wasn’t very clear to me.

My “I” Is Better Than Yours
Like most young aspiring creative types, my first professional maneuver post graduate school came with a need to clearly identify my superior sense of a personal aesthetic. Dismissing the work of others became part of elevating my “I” as a theatremaker, thinker, curator, and tastemaker. “I like this.” “I don’t like that.”

Turning inward is a necessity in finding the stories you want to tell, but it comes with dangerous narcissistic tendencies, and can shrink your worldview in a big hurry. Defining your taste is a way of elevating your own status, and if not carefully monitored can become an exclusionary practice. I became exclusionary, and was honestly surprised to see my community organizing aspirations turn this direction.

Had there not been a creative commons like the public library that allowed me to discover books based on things as random as the book jacket art, and more importantly had there been a price for entry, I would have never discovered the kind of stories that spoke to me. After a few years of patrolling the gates of opportunity for other theatremakers, I realized I was much more interested in perpetuating and supporting the work of others, and promoting the importance of creativity, art, and entertainment from a more expansive perspective.

 

After a few years of patrolling the gates of opportunity for other theatremakers, I realized I was much more interested in perpetuating and supporting the work of others, and promoting the importance of creativity, art, and entertainment from a more expansive perspective.

 

open gate
The gate of opprotunity, if you will.
Photo by Shutterstok.

This transition wasn’t easy. And it’s not that I’m saying it’s wrong to have opinions about theatre, nor am I saying that all art demonstrates talent. Rather, I’m saying that more people involved in a creative commons is likely better than fewer people watching/experiencing the singular aesthetics of a handful of curators. And when thinking about my own intervention, I’d rather take the risk of bad art passing through the curatorial gates than the risk of talented theatremakers being stuck behind those gates by the limited tastes of a few.

Not long ago, one of those artistic curators, defending his limited aesthetic, referred to the herds of artists of color and women at the gates of opportunity decrying the lack of diversity in his season, as the “drip, drip, drip” of the internet. For him that drip didn’t mean a thing. He didn’t have to listen to the crowd, because his aesthetic rules—he trusts his “I” fully. Oh, to have such confidence in a singular viewpoint! He oversees millions of dollars in not-for-profit resources but he’s not accountable to his community?

Why the Crowd? Why Now?
I refuse to believe that the crowd is only a drip. In fact in the past two years, the crowd has blown my mind, and permanently altered my worldview. And I realize that my early idealism has been fully rekindled in middle age by a fundamentally transformed culture where the crowd can have an impact, and where transparency, honesty, and justice have a chance. And if you’re a more introverted type, community organizing can happen as effectively behind a computer screen as through door knocking.

The HowlRound crowd is altering the direction and the conversation of theatre practice. This crowd is you. As a community-sourced series of knowledge platforms, you decide its direction, and this past year you’ve taken it places I could have never imagined. Jonathan McCrory got serious about examining the evolving role of black theatremakers in our profession and curated a week on the subject. One of his contributors, Carla Stillwell, is still blogging for us weeks later. Travis Bedard stepped up to tell us what Austin means to our creative ecosystem, and the Network of Ensemble Theaters is livestreaming their Microfests from all over the United States. Meanwhile, a group of Latina/o theatremakers is organizing to gather the largest group of Latina/o artists in one place since 1986, and tracking that activity through Café Onda.

Thank goodness for the drip, drip, drip!

A Culture Coin
When ArtsFwd put out the call for “half-baked” proposals for its Business Unusual National Challenge, HowlRound took the opportunity to propose a half-baked idea that Vijay Mathew has been kicking around. As an organization that relies on the volunteerism and energy of the crowd (though we do pay a small fee for journal and blog posts!), we’ve wondered what it would mean if we could better quantify that energy? Could we create an alternative currency that could put quantifiable value on the sweat equity of theatre artists? What theatre artist hasn’t volunteered sweat equity to move a career forward? And how many theatre artists could benefit from alternative ways to pay for space and theatre tickets and play readers…and? What if you volunteered to be in a play reading and were paid in Culture Coins, and then you used those coins to pay for theatre tickets? What if each day theatres with available resources put those resources on the culture coin market (unsold tickets, open rehearsal space) for artists to purchase?

In the past two weeks, we’ve been haranguing you to vote for us in the ArtsFwd challenge. If we get enough votes we will move onto the final round for funding consideration of our proposal. You’ve been asking good questions about the Culture Coin, and we’ll need you all to help us explore answers to those questions. We regularly work from the notion of the half-baked. Only the crowd will turn half-baked into a real and practical application.

Community Organizing Again
My work with HowlRound has helped me find a way to take my early idealism and aspirations full circle. I realize that I’m not directly making life better for those families in Deland. I’ve accepted that more or less. But I believe that there are theatremakers out there—el teatro campesino, Harlem9, Double Edge Theatre, Aaron Landsman, Michael Rohd, KJ Sanchez, Michelle Hensley, Melanie Joseph, Lisa D’Amour and Katie Pearl—who will intervene in myriad communities with real impact. I no longer feel helpless, and see the enormous possibility of the “we can make difference.” The work of HowlRound seeks to contribute to that we.

The ArtsFwd Challenge continues through May 31. Vote once a day, each day for one project. There are fourteen terrific options. Be counted.

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Why just theater? Go big! There are many more avenues of art out there, and visual artists are struggling just as much if not more. I take any opportunity to get my work out there

Yes, it will be for any kind of artistic or cultural practice—broadly and openly defined. From traditionally defined arts to open source software development projects to journalism to any activity where underutilized resources can meet unmet needs of culture makers.

Polly, Thanks for this inspiring column. Last month I attended a panel on season selection at the Theatre Bay Area Conference. A member of the audience raised the question of gender parity--and the response from the panelists was something along the lines of the "drip, drip, drip" comment cited above. But, as Kira Obolensky notes, if we keep on dripping, we'll flood the stages ... with work that is beautiful and important and diverse.

" I’d rather take the risk of bad art passing through the curatorial gates than the risk of talented theater makers being stuck behind those gates by the limited tastes of a few."

Amen.

Polly, I LOVE this and envisioning a system that is not status driven, but that supports is in being more supportive of one another. We need this right now. This has the capacity to radically change the
theatre landscape by inviting much more interplay, and to strengthen theatre that we are
making- interestingly, modeling on what the wonderful artists you mention are doing. City Council Meeting and How to Build A Forest.

It’s interesting to hear your journey through this process. I’ve only found real connection in the work through some really awkward searching and grappling with ethics, and experimenting with new ways of communicating in the world more recently- doing what’s hard, and ditching the old ways. And it is proving to be rewarding, beyond any claim as an artist. I can't thank you enough for leading.

I got to speak publicly recently about the "drip, drip, drip" comment of which you write. I was asked to talk about epiphanies in my life that gave my artistic viewpoint clarity or strength. The "drip" comment as well as the accompanying "self serving" and "tokenism" comments have given me such clarity into the power and inevitability of a stronger "we" that I can now (nearly) thank the leader who spoke them. In fact the whole conference at which i spoke was formed in part around a need for "the crowd" to positively process the "drip" man's comments and stance - one he is not alone in taking. So, yes, the crowd is something to feel hope about! Thanks Polly as always.

Important words. I will say it is essential to look inward to connect with your inner truth as long as when you open your eyes again, you respect and acknowledge the person next to you!!

I AM because WE ARE. African proverb

Erin! I love that proverb.

Polly, your struggle with the I/we relationship in activism taps into the question that emerged for me as I interviewed European "radical" activists for a performance project a few years ago: How do we know how big to make ourselves in the world as we work toward our ideals?

I see great potential in the way HowlRound encourages us to simultaneously live inside the amoeba of our community and actively (egoistically) create it. The half-baked Culture Coin idea fits right into that ethos.