Friday, March 21, 2008

A Critical look at how we need to go a step further

I hope the following doesnt bore or upset anyone. I am attempting a balanced introduction to a point of contention between myself and one of my respected colleagues. If that isn't enough qualification before I attempt to start the debate, well then...too bad.

Part One -

One the threads of conversation that came out of our 'value talk' had to do with describing the value of theater to those not "in the know". This was a question in the comments of Don's value talk.

Ian from Praxis responded with this "Theatre creates and strengthens communities. Stronger communities are better to live in. For everyone. Theatre is civic engagement."

Don, I believe rightly so, pushed for more, "Does that description work? I mean, does it get the sports fan out of the stadium and into the theater once in a while?

Ian - "I'm not sure if it works. What it does have going for it is that a) it's the truth b) it clearly expresses the benefit. We can create the most compelling statements in the world about theatre, but if the work itself doesn't reflect the communities it's trying to attract, then we're going to be no further ahead..."

That is when I came in. Whereas I respect what I believe Ian is attempting to accomplish, I disagree with what Ian says his value statement has "going for it."

Devilvet - "what would one say to the notion that "civil engagement" and 'strong community' have merely become buzz words once used by a previous arts admin generation that hoped to convene to rich patrons that they could feel goos about seeing theatre? And that possibly these buzz words mean significantly less and less with each succesive use? Especially when it comes to getting the sports fan into the theatre?"

Don agreed. Ian was in his own words disheartened that I suggested his thoughts were merely buzzwords - "Do you really have such a low opinion of the concepts of community and civic engagement? Should we invent new words simply because we don't like what the previous generation did with them? Or should we work to make them our own?"

Devilvet - "I do not have a low opinion of the concept of community and civic engagement. I do have a low opinion of them as effective marketing methodology. I think we should not waste our time attempting to resignify what a previous generation has already wrung out to dry, the notion that involvement in this or that theatre makes for a better community...old hat...yes and duck goes quack..."

Perhaps "yes and duck goes quack" is too terse or dismissive...but what can I say? It is what I honestly felt.

"... Ian, what you are aiming at is good, but I feel you must sharpen the point of your arrows past "civic" and "community" two words that have already done whatever they were going to do to put butts in seats"

Part Two

So, in the interest of communication and hopefully an evolution of the ideas (rather than addressing whether or not I'm a jerk) I want to amplify my response.

First, Ian (this is not meant to be derogatory) You may go to mat for these ideas "civic engagement" and "Community" but rather than phrasing them as your ideas, I think it is more accurate to say that they are ideas that we all have inherited. Now, I'm not fully versed on how funding and organization is up in Canada, but I feel that in the US we artists and arts admin folks have inherited this notion, this language of social, civic intent when speaking about art. In my opinion, I think it is a extension of our non-profit corporate tax model. In some fashion, we have to convince ourselves and potential donors that our creative acts are actually acts of philanthropy. That is why we deserve tax free status, that is how we justify asking for financial assistance.

Now, I have heard alot of theater folk, and I mean alot of them, use the word "civic engagement", "community", etc.etc.etc. to the point where they don't mean much anymore. Some people mean it, some don't. But regardless of the sincerity those words have lost some of their power to inspire becuase if the company that is producing work in TX about immigration and border partol, and the theatre company in the next town over that is doing a musical, a comedy, and a Christmas Carol...if both of these theatres wear the words "community" then the word becomes less, the word becomes the worse sort of marketing. And, i can tell you...everybody who wanted funding starts out using that damn word "community"

Ian, as I reread what we wrote to each other, you did say something I like. Something I agree with...We can create the most compelling statements in the world about theatre, but if the work itself doesn't reflect the communities it's trying to attract, then we're going to be no further ahead...

This notion is I think similar to the notion I was attempting to amplify. Maybe where we differ is that i think that some, many theater companies pay lip service to "civic...community", use that sort of terminology in missions statements, value statements, grant applications, etc. and then they turn around and produce work that doesn't accomplish what they say.

Not everyone has to try to be a hero through their art, not everybody has to feed the poor, or speak for disenfranchised, or investigate local situations with sincerity, etc...but to those companies that honestly wish to, not in search of funding or applause, a further step, a step that should be achievable is required. If we want to merely entertain, or do that play that we've been dying to do since we were in school, fine. But those who want to do more should specify that with more depth than the word "community"

I would if I could take away the words "civic" and "community" not because as a generalized concept there is anything wrong with them, but rather because contentment with those words becomes a speed bump to actual goal of making the community benefit or profit. Get those words out of our vocabulary so that we can instead choose more specific words and more specific goals.

That is most likely the sort of intent that folks like Ian and others who truly do want the community to benefit...that is probably a worthy thing in their eyes. So, I wish they would grasp the opportunity to use the gift of specificity to ample the argument for "civic engagement" and "community benefit".

For instance, again from Don's blog...


"Ian,

potential, imperfect examples of what I'm talking about with a hypothetical theater company called

"Revalue Theatreworks" or RTW

Revalue Theatreworks produces plays that teach their audience how better to stand up to political oppression.

RTW produces plays that encourage a level of bilingual discourse among local residents and recently localed immigrants

RTW produces plays that encourage children to write, paint, and sing

RTW produces plays that show us why it is so important to cure economic poverty within our lifetimes

RTW produces work that comments on local eminent domain legislative changes in our town

.......

I think this is the sort of thing you are talking about...this is where the discourse has to evolve to, past 'civil engagement' past 'community based' and into something more like this!

Put your heart there! (virtual high five)"

I had hoped this would be encouraging. I had hoped folks might think me more than contrary jerk. Maybe???

Ian, I think we agree about the sort of foundation that has been laid, but are we on the same page about how to build the house on the foundation? You said...

a) it's the truth b) it clearly expresses the benefit.


If a) is the case...then I argue that b) is not...that we as a group have not clearly expressed the benefit, and that until we do...unfortunately we are just using "buzz words". We need to take the next step, amplify, evolve the language. Then our value becomes more evident than it currently is. Let us not resignify the language of the past, lets us instead amplify, evolve, and create a newer more specific language of value.

Perhaps I've made this too personal a post, perhaps it should have instead been a private email to Ian (whom I did ask via email for his blessing to amplify). It is evident from visiting his and so many other blogs that we all have a passion and a desire and drive. His interviews are testament enough that he has something great to share.

Great! Now lets challenge each other to evolve! That challenge is what I (sometimes in too abrupt a fashion) ...that is what I am trying to share.

5 comments:

Travis Bedard said...

DV I don't think that the words are the problem, I think you are both saying correct things. The sticking point is that they are words on a page. Even words in a bar would be better.

You aren't the only human in the sphere asking for more than words. But we're not in the same room, and by and large we're not sharing our work. We only exist to one another as words.

Community is my buzzword of choice (on the practitioner side not audience), the difference between me and a marketeer is that I am the person responsible for making that happen.

I'm not a desk jockey talking about the battle, I'm in the battle. Ian's in the battle. Don's in the battle. You're in the battle.

If we have decided that we want to make community, whatever that means to us, the point of our interaction with an audience then it's going to happen.

We just need to remember that we've decided that.

Devilvet said...

Travis,

trying to digest what you're saying. I guess I believe that the words and the thoughts enable action and more specific choices about words enable better. If we have decided, as you said, then communicating more specifically about that is for me the next step. If not what other steps am I missing here?

If it is not hesitation/debate at new words leading to newer action and newer plateaus that I'm sensing, what is it? I'm at a loss.

Just like a script on the page is nothing but words until an actor makes them active.

Nothing wrong with saying I want a more active script to enact...is there?

Being face to face would be more direct, but what else do we got right now but this?

I just want to take this opportunity at a challenge. I think we have a lot to gain if we think of "community" as the first draft, and move upto a second draft. I think the words are the part of problem.

I would like to see us share our work though. I agree with you there. I like you photos. I attempt to blog frequently about what I'm doing in rehearsal or on stage. the Mammals blog and lots of links to right are my attempt to share my work.

Tony said...

"Some people mean it, some don't. But regardless of the sincerity those words have lost some of their power to inspire because if the company that is producing work in TX about immigration and border patrol, and the theatre company in the next town over that is doing a musical, a comedy, and a Christmas Carol..."

"many theater companies pay lip service to "civic...community", use that sort of terminology in missions statements, value statements, grant applications, etc. and then they turn around and produce work that doesn't accomplish what they say."

How do you separate the two using the words we have? Those that are simply paying lip service to funders, and those who are walking the walk?

Is it about finding new words, or about the misuse of those words in existence?

How do you separate companies that believe in their mission, who are driven by it, from those whose real mission is bs, bs, blah, blah I want some money to do the work I want to do for me?

Is there a difference in not accomplishing what you say and not even trying what you say?

Devilvet said...

"Is it about finding new words, or about the misuse of those words in existence?"

It is about setting the bar either higher or with greater specificity. It is that the word "community" is so over used that the only reliable way to insure sincerity is to move beyond merely speaking the mantra of community benefit and rather setting an even more specific goal.

It means that for those who want to benefit the community, a greater degree a more specific setting of goals is essential.

It does not mean that those who speak of "community" are hypocrites, but it does mean that until they refine their goals, and further define their value beyond merely the word and/or intent of "community"...that they may entertain, they speak of profundity, they may even thrive economically but the have failed to grasp an opportunity to move to a higher ground they themselves claim to strive towards.

It means that with greater specificity in goals, especially those tied to community benefit, a greater accomplishments are enabled, and accomplished.

it means that if we speak with a more active voice when assigning ourselves value, goals, missions...we enable specific success rather than a continuous cycle of marketing and mission statement rhetoric.




"How do you separate companies that believe in their mission, who are driven by it, from those whose real mission is bs, bs, blah, blah I want some money to do the work I want to do for me?"

This is less about discerning who is sincere and who isnt. It is more about enabling the value. It is up to the funders to decide who gets their money. But, it is up to us to decide our value our goals. I think a more active approach to those goals, just like a more active approach to acting is a key to better performance. If I were directing a production of Enemy of the People, would I settle for the actor who when describing his want stops at 'I want to better the community' and when pushed further to interpret the piece says, I think I've said enough... or the actor who says 'I want to save this town from the devastation of poisoned drinking water'. The actor uses his skill and his words to enable more specific action.

Specificity. Divorced of rhetoric.




"Is there a difference in not accomplishing what you say and not even trying what you say?"

To my mind, both scenarios are failures.

Ian Mackenzie said...

Thanks for providing further clarification on your position Bob. I agree wholeheartedly that "as a group have not clearly expressed the benefit."

I'd like to see you asking more of these questions. Keep 'em coming.