Saturday, December 1, 2007


As you might imagine, the staff and Board at the Lark is very focused on fundraising right now. It is nearing the end of the calendar year, so people are turning their attention to their financial positions and what that means in terms of charitable giving and the tax incentives for doing so. While opportunities for philanthropy are by no means limited to any single time of year (the Lark’s fundraising team is always busy!), December is the definitive month for annual giving. Year-end tax deductions are a critical reason for this yearly rhythm, but there is an emotional component as well. December is when a lot of people think a little bit more about the whole idea of “giving.” Cultural traditions like Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, and Kwanzaa are deeply concerned with generosity and gift-giving as expressions of love, family ties, friendship, and faith, and these holidays are themselves linked to even more primitive rituals associated with harvest blessings, seasonal cycles, sacrifice, and renewal. Even on a secular level, the notion of freedom and fairness in America can take on an almost spiritual dimension. This combination of tax incentives and social responsibility has formed a powerful philanthropic culture that is virtually unique to the United States and its non-profit institutions.

Philanthropy has become the lifeblood of freedom in America. In a society where so many experiences are valued in economic terms almost exclusively, philanthropy has the mission of supporting activities that have other kinds of worth. There is no easy way to place a dollar value on peace, spirituality, education, social justice, good government, and the arts. When we delude ourselves into thinking that the ticket price of a play in any way represents the meaning of a work of art—whether to each individual audience member or to history itself—and weigh the cost value of attending that play against competing consumer opportunities, we have surrendered to the tempting but false assumption that our increasingly complex society can be adequately measured and understood through the language of economics alone.

Philanthropy in its very essence does not respond to market principles except to deny them sovereignty by elevating and celebrating the larger principles of liberty, equality, brotherhood and sisterhood. Philanthropy supports the idea that strength must exist in institutions that care about people as much as money. I believe that the future of the arts and sciences, medicine, environmentalism, foreign relations, and all such studies that are imperative to the survival of the human race and dependent on the cultivation of new ideas by the next generation of young thinkers, is dependent upon how we can deepen and expand our culture of philanthropy. The strange irony, however, is that philanthropy depends upon individual entrepreneurialism, a healthy and wealthy market economy, and a secure democracy to build an ample resource base to be distributed for the social good. I believe that there exists enormous untapped wealth in our society to invest in philanthropic models capable of stimulating the development of new ideas and, consequently, additional wealth.

The Lark depends almost exclusively on philanthropy to stay alive and pursue its mission. Ninety-five percent of our revenues are derived from contributions, from a broad base of supporters, with scarcely any revenues from ticket sales or other earned sources. Because our individual and institutional donors support us financially for the purposes of performing our mission—to identify new and unheard voices and perspectives, support their growth, and foster partnerships that advance these voices to public awareness—we do not need to prove the worth of our organization by succeeding in simple commercial terms. We can take bigger risks, make longer leaps, and measure our success not only by how many people come to see us, but also who comes, why they come, and whether we have been able to form a sustainable community.

We seek philanthropic dollars to sustain and grow the Lark’s mission, but, at the same time, we are committed to making a stronger case for supporting a broad-based, grassroots matrix of creative institutions like ours. This starts by understanding why people give to us already and developing strategies for deepening our relationships with them throughout the year—not just in December.

John Clinton Eisner
Producing Director

Thursday, November 1, 2007


The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights is widely considered to be the cornerstone of American democracy, guaranteeing basic freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition. Nevertheless, the extent to which citizens may exercise these freedoms is the subject of continuing debate.

Some believe that individual expression should be entirely unrestricted, while others are uncomfortable with laws that allow pornography, nudity, flag-burning, hard-core lyrics, or hate speech. Motives for limiting free expression vary widely—from shielding the powerful from criticism to defending moral principles from degradation. History is full of instances where political leaders—in the name of preserving social order—have curtailed free speech as a tactic to weaken opposition and manipulate public opinion. When the rights of free speech are suppressed, it is more difficult to disseminate alternative perspectives and critical responses—things the public needs to make informed decisions in a democracy. Under such circumstances, fear starts to take its toll on public debate. “Different-ness” becomes a liability, and even the court of public opinion turns against individuality and complex social thought. Like lobsters slowly cooking in a pot, it is easy to remain unaware that the water is getting hotter and hotter until it is too late to act.

Both in the U.S. and abroad, artists have historically played a leadership role in preserving free thought and expression, especially during times of civil unrest, reactionary social policy, and fear. The theater—perhaps the world’s oldest arena of free speech—remains a particularly vital forum for expressing, amplifying and re-conceiving ideas, questioning prevailing values, and illuminating the human condition.

The very controversy that arises when a play is produced—or even proposed for production—tests the limits of free expression in our society. In January 2007, a Missouri high school cancelled its production of The Crucible in the wake of pressure by local Christian fundamentalists who claimed that it showed Christianity in an unfavorable light (54 years after its Tony award-winning Broadway triumph!). When Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi was produced at Manhattan Theatre Club in October 1998, dramatizing Jesus and the Apostles as gay men living in Texas, angry protesters planted themselves in front of the theater, bomb threats were received, metal detectors installed, and the theater company considered canceling the production. Religious objectors decried the play as blasphemous and some critics questioned its artistic merit. But the issue that predominated was whether the author had a right to express his ideas or the theater had a right to present a play that distributed those ideas. Another recent play, My Name is Rachel Corrie, drawn from the diary of an American woman killed by Israeli soldiers in Palestine, provoked a firestorm when its New York City not-for- profit producers cancelled its 2006 opening—an action many believed was motivated by fear of economic reprisals from donors averse to the expression of pro-Palestinian views. Each of these events is a sobering reminder to artists and citizens that the right of free expression is a constant struggle.

In recent years, the theater has also played a critical role in challenging despotic regimes and supporting freedoms in emerging democracies. In communist Romania, dissident voices found a strategy for discussing the political situation through theater that was based on reinterpretations of the classics. Romanian theater artists filled their work with pointed clues (which they called “lizards”) to guide audiences in interpreting classic texts as metaphors for current social affairs and to keep alive a kind of subtle resistance through a collective understanding of the madness that surrounded them.

In one pre-revolution production of Twelfth Night at the National Theater in Bucharest, the actor playing Touchstone earned a huge laugh from the audience when, looking for eavesdroppers, he ran his fingertips along the underside of a table searching for a hidden microphone. At about the same time, Ion Caramitru (current artistic director of the Romanian National Theater) played Hamlet in a famous production that skillfully compared the “rotten” state of Denmark to Ceausescu’s despotic regime. When communism fell, Caramitru was the first person to announce the people’s victory over the airwaves. The public knew Caramitru intimately—he had kept their hopes alive through his work in the theater.

Recent history holds many such examples of theater serving as catalyst for positive social change and the orderly transition to democracy. Vaclav Havel, elected president of the new Czech Republic in 1993, is a leading intellectual and moral force in Eastern Europe whose social and political philosophy was formed through his work as a dramatist, poet and essayist. Havel’s plays explore the absurd relationship between social conditions and the indirect language used to describe those conditions. His courage to speak out landed him in jail frequently, but spawned new ideas and encouraged dissent, paving the way for an entire movement that eventually prevailed against communism. His essays support a tradition of democratic and liberal thought, though to Havel, the form of government mattered less than the moral injunction for individuals to speak freely and according to their conscience:

“It has been our absolutely basic historical experience that, in the long run, the only thing that can be truly successful and meaningful politically must first and foremost—that is, before it has taken any political form at all—be a proper and adequate response to the fundamental moral dilemmas of the time, or an expression of respect for the imperatives of the moral order bequeathed to us by our culture. It is a very clear understanding that the only kind of politics that truly makes sense is one that is guided by conscience.”

— Havel upon receiving the Open Society Prize awarded by the
Central European University in 1999, trans. by Paul Wilson

Latin America , too, presents many examples of artists graduating to political power and fostering freedom. This extensive list of names includes Homero Aridjis, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes and Octavio Paz, all of whom have served their communities as artists, journalists, and public servants. Such dissident voices are often in a position to bring about positive change once they have attained positions of power. Aridjis is one of Mexico’s foremost poets and novelists, an environmental activist, an ambassador and a former president of PEN. Paz is a Mexican author, diplomat and political conservative who stands fast for the role of literature in fostering free expression. He described writers as the “guardians of language” and poetry as the “secret religion of the modern age.” In a 1976 poem, Paz conveyed his idea about the power of language to express the unique perspective of the individual:

Between what I see and what I say
Between what I say and what I keep silent
Between what I keep silent and what I dream
Between what I dream and what I forget:

More and more, we are struggling to resist censorship and challenges to free expression. Our local and national forums for honest dialogue and debate are easily corrupted by economic influences, complacency, and the politics of fear. But there are many ways to create an inclusive society through grassroots arts activism, especially using the theater as a stage for the public sharing of ideas. We can enrich and diversify the pool of practicing artists in our country by reaching into Diaspora, international, and other minority communities to include their voices in mainstream society. We can encourage theater artists to explore new and untold stories that trigger vibrant discussions about individual liberties and foster unifying conversations.

The cultural majesty of the globe is served when we work mindfully to value and protect the freedoms that support individual expression. It is a commitment to discourse that leads to understanding and appreciation for the differences as well as the commonalities of varying cultures and traditions. In a moment of such potential for global sharing, it seems critical to build a culture of shared values that celebrate the traditions of many places and perspectives. The community of nations can come together peacefully and productively, and with a clear and proud sense of self, through genuine communication. And with support, the theater—an art form in which this kind of cross-cultural communication has historically taken place—can continue to grow.

John Clinton Eisner
Producing Director

Saturday, September 1, 2007


I have seen a surge of exciting and original plays during the past few years. I suspect this increase is at least partially related to artists and communities grappling with the meaning of 9/11 and trying to glean some sense of it all. Artists are responding to the nation’s crisis by reaching out for new ideas and perspectives, and institutions are responding by supporting diversity initiatives and expanding their processes to support the creation of different kinds of new work.

But despite all the good work that is taking place, institution-by-institution, too little of it is having lasting impact and staying in the repertoire. Perhaps because we live in a “disposable society,” where we drive SUV’s and eat out of throwaway containers, we have become content to invest in works of art for its immediate gratification without thinking about the future. The creative process has certainly become more disjointed, isolated, fragmented. Writers travel between institutions without a coherent plan, subject to different agendas at different theaters, subsuming their own goals just to be giving a little attention and the possibility of a production. Even when a project is given the extraordinary benefit of a successful developmental workshop with a talented and committed community of artists, and blossoms into something wonderful, what next? What universal strategies exist to connect that work to project-specific theaters and communities that will benefit from it? Or when a writer is given a rare and amazing production opportunity at a respectful theatre and learns the valuable things that only a production can teach about a play, what next? How can this experience connect to other meaningful steps in the life of a play or a playwright? At festivals and play development programs around the country, industry people are often invited to “look and buy” but seldom to take part in a larger discussion about the visions of playwrights or collaborative models to advance work in ways no single institution can alone. Why is this so?

Unless these separate pieces come together in an integrated strategy for advancing the work in innovative ways, we will not fulfill our collective potential to support the vision and leadership of great writers, ensure their contributions to a lasting cultural repertoire, and connect them to a widening audience through the continued lives of their plays.

Sadly, I don’t think that institutions are working well with one another. There are few short-term incentives to do so, and the costs associated with creating and sustaining partnerships are high and seldom built into budgets or staff assignments. In my opinion, partnerships fail more often because prospective partners have underestimated what it will take to create a viable relationship—not because the project was a bad idea. I meet regularly with artistic directors at theaters and I usually bring this up with them. Typically, they find it very awkward to discuss. Understandably, this discomfort revolves around the question of how artistic or executive decisions will be made. Frequently, I am told collaborations “undermine leadership” and can “ruin a play.” “Doing things that way means that some leaders are going to have to let others leaders make important decisions,” one artistic director recently said to me. She continued, “Some of them aren’t going to like that.” And in all the anxiety about who gets to be in charge, the role of the playwright, the visionary, is lost.

Another artistic leader I spoke with relayed a litany of disappointments that his major regional theater company experienced in its recent co-production with a slightly smaller theater company. He reported that the scenery was not as good as something they would have built in their own shop; the casting was off, and so forth. When I asked him how the post-mortem had gone, he looked surprised and said that there had not been a post mortem – or much of a planning period in the first place. The companies’ leaders had never really come to the table together, and, when it was over, they had simply “walked away” without looking back.

These comments illustrate what I think is today’s biggest deficit in the cultural sector, the business world, and the political arena—not just the theater: that people are not motivated to pool resources to create shared success. I also believe that organizations must aggressively explore the notion of “community” for purposes that go far beyond selling tickets alone, but for the larger purpose of creating a culture that defines who we are as a society espousing free expression and diversity as core values. Only then can we truly say we respect and stand behind playwrights and other artists, and care about who is—or is not—coming to the theater.

Theater, with its roots in democracy and its proven capacity to show truth to power, is especially allied with the idea of individuality and free expression. That may possibly be theater’s greatest gift and the reason it has always been a crucible for powerful ideas and social movements. But theater is also about collaboration. It teaches us how to work with one another in small groups during the creative process and in large groups during productions. It teaches us about taking responsibility and relinquishing it, leading and following, teaching and learning. And in today’s rapidly shrinking and infinitely complex world, we are more reliant than ever on the idea of collaboration for our very survival.

John Clinton Eisner
Producing Director


Have you ever been to YMCA Camp Manito-wish in the north woods? It is not too far from Boulder Junction, Wisconsin, up there near Lake Superior, about 250 miles north of Madison, where I grew up. It is a 90 year-old wilderness camp, and it proved to be a formative experience for me when I went there as a boy.

My family and I traveled there in August for “family camp” and took a brief break from the rest of the world. On our way up and back, my 11 year-old daughter complained, “It is in the “middle of nature!” She is a self-described “city girl,” and she is right about that. It is beautiful, challenging, and far away from everything; even cellular technology has not yet conquered it. The only thing Camp Manito-wish asks of you is that you try something new while you are there. They understand that the true meaning of “frontier” is the place you travel outside your comfort zone in order to grow wiser, stronger, and more fully connected to the world.

During my time away from the office this August, I’ve thought long and hard about what it means to grow in these ways. Staring at the full moon reflecting on the lake one night, I considered how I might challenge myself to try something new in my life. I thought of the artists we work with every day at the Lark, and how much I take for granted that they will regularly take big risks – and how impatient I am when they play it safe. Growth means change, and change means letting go of something comfortable and to take the risk of trying something new. For me the very idea of “risk” conjures images of two-fold failure. First, I worry that adding something new will rock the boat and jeopardize what is running smoothly. Second, I don’t like to look stupid in front of other people and the clear inevitability of failing publicly in my first attempts at something new always holds me back. A favorite teacher of mine used to describe this condition as “a paralysis of integrity.” The beauty of a place like Camp Manito-wish is that everyone is constantly trying new things. Consequently, people seemed to grow right before our eyes – like a series of time-lapse photos of a flower blooming.

It struck me that although I lead a cultural institution that supports writers – and, more importantly, the thought process, critical activities, and community necessary for their success – I have taken surprisingly little time to reflect upon my own experiences at the Lark. For over a decade I have observed the creative process in hundreds of iterations but have never set aside the time to synthesize what I’ve learned and to write it down. Moreover, these ideas about “process” are not isolated tools to help artists create and partner institutions to succeed in interacting with audiences. Process goes beyond its direct application in the studio or the auditorium and can be applied to much larger social challenges like ‘trust,’ ‘collaboration,’ ‘leadership,’ and ‘freedom of expression.’ Perhaps this was the “something new” I could try in the coming year: to provoke a larger conversation about the ways in which we support – or even value – creativity and, secondly, to look for some original ideas about the Lark process and to write about them in order to make a stronger case for the Lark’s role in the cultural ecosystem to funders, partner institutions, and the community at large.

The next afternoon, I spotted my daughter storming my way from where the sailboats were kept. She was fashionably dressed, wearing her ladybug-shaped pendant watch on its faux-gold chain, her best Converse sneakers, and other favorite accessories. She was dripping with lake water and furious. It was a windy day, and she had gone out in a tiny butterfly sailboat with her mother – something neither of them had ever attempted before. Naturally, they had capsized – twice – into the frigid waters of Boulder Lake. My wife, Jennifer, had gamely taken on the Manito-wish challenge to try something new, but, somehow, my daughter had not understood the risks involved. Later, Jennifer described for me the look in Hannah’s eyes as they plunged into the lake – a combination of horror and betrayal. At this moment, though, Hannah was furious with me for having brought her to this miserable place where she was now going to have to bear the shame of failure. I could say nothing to help, but, by dinner, the compliments were pouring in: “I hear you tried sailing!” “Got wet, huh?” “Doesn’t it feel great to try something new?” Hannah was now among the initiated.

On our drive back home to my mother’s house in Madison, Jennifer said something that surprised me: “Isn’t it interesting that the camp you attended when you were 13 years old had so much influence on your life that you subconsciously recreated a similar environment at the Lark? Isn’t the Lark based on ideas you learned at camp as a child about trust, excellence, and the importance of community?” In the silence that followed, Hannah thought about this and nodded in agreement.

My thoughts keep returning to what Jennifer said to me in the car on the way back to civilization, about my grafting ideas I learned at camp in my childhood onto the culture of the theater company I later helped to establish. I am intrigued and delighted by my unconscious effort to recreate a place where I felt comfortable enough to try new things, and I am beginning to see that the Lark is flourishing so gloriously because I am not the only person doing this. Like a really good potluck supper, the people who come to the Lark’s table are willing to share the very best of themselves and to challenge each other to try something new. Big or small, each new step is a choice we make about standing still or moving forward.

Every program at the Lark is about creating an environment that encourages artists to enter new frontiers and to define the experience for themselves. And we’re always trying new things. For instance, this year, inspired by a visionary member of our Board, we’re launching a brand-new national fellowship program called “Playwrights of New York” (“PONY”) which provides a gifted young playwright each year with a comfortable midtown apartment, a generous living subsidy, and the full program support of the Lark. This prize is one of the largest of its kind in the world, and I hope it will leverage similar fellowships here at the Lark and elsewhere. We’re also excited because we’re having our Broadway debut this fall, along with the phenomenal playwright, Theresa Rebeck whose Lark-developed play, MAURITIUS, opens in October at the Biltmore in a co-production of Manhattan Theatre Club and Boston’s Huntington Theatre where the show ran last year. Both are the thrilling consequences of a series of courageous steps into unknown territory.

At the core of its mission, the Lark is about the process of growth: as an individual, as an artist, and as a community. It has always been my conviction that when we grow and change in small ways we invent the models necessary for larger growth and change in society. Every time a playwright conjures up a world that is true to itself, that actors can fully inhabit, and that audiences can care about, I know that there exists in the world one more example of the good that people can do if they set their minds to it – and of how risks are worth taking.

I am going to consider these ideas carefully this year, and look forward to engaging you and other Lark community members in an ongoing conversation about the process of trying new things and learning from them, and about applying these lessons more broadly to our lives. I invite you to join us as often as you can at the Lark this season and to share your responses to the ideas I will explore in this column throughout the year.

Oh, I forgot to mention that I’m also training to do the “Island Swim” at Camp Manito-wish next summer. That is where you swim across the lake and back early in the morning and then get a lengthy standing ovation from the cheering families at breakfast. Want to join me?

John Clinton Eisner
Producing Director

Wednesday, August 1, 2007


The late theatrical director and innovator William Ball, who founded the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, charged his artist colleagues with the awesome social responsibility of speaking truth to power. I remember him speaking to a group of us once, insisting that "the most deplorable events that have transpired in human history can be explained by the mere fact the people are more afraid to speak in public than they are to die." Bill Ball knew that even in societies where freedom of expression is considered a fundamental civil right, most people prefer not to "muddy the waters." Furthermore, he recognized that the political, social, and economic costs of speaking out against injustice are burdensome, and, consequently, injustice frequently goes unchallenged. He started America's first conservatory for actors partly because he loved the theater, but also because he knew that social engagement, critical thinking, and public debate require constant drill and practice. Ball saw the theater as a bastion of democracy and a training ground for its champions. His "soldiers of the theater" employed clowning and comedy far more persuasively than the young men of that time were using mortar and shells in Viet Nam.

The Lark's work is also about getting back to the basics of public discourse by using theater, a political forum since the Greeks, as a platform for open discussion. At the heart of our mission is an affirmation of the individual playwright's role as community leader and as fulcrum for the principle of free expression in society. As the globe gets smaller, we see fresh opportunities to bring forth voices from a wider network of communities and to tap into the creative power of more individual artists than ever before.

We aim to bring truth back to political discourse by giving space and credibility to the true voices of citizens as a counterweight to media manipulation and the unrealistic reliance on technology to solve social problems. The human network is the flipside of the information revolution; what cannot be improved through computers, technology and specialized systems is human contact and the trust that it engenders - and theater is at the intersection of contact and trust. Theater, therefore, helps us to focus on each individual's life and the power of local community, and enhances a conversation about democracy that can only happen in person. We, at the Lark, are in the process of creating a global network in order to ignite social change and prompt political discourse by going beyond mere news and analysis of world events and seeking more dynamic interpretations of meaning through the very intimate prism of theater - a practice that has enriched the world, and the language we use to describe it, for millennia, from Aeschylus and Shakespeare to Chekhov, Shaw, Miller, Kushner and an explosion of diverse writers who now need our support in order to be heard.

John Clinton Eisner
Producing Director

Sunday, July 1, 2007


In his “I have a dream” speech, delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. rebuked the nation for its failure to measure up to its own standards: “ I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’” King envisioned a better world in which freedom would be universally applied: “This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, ‘My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.’ And if America is to be a great nation this must become true.”

King helped us see that wherever we are, there is still more to do, and that we cannot rest until it is done. His exercise of free speech, while unpopular with some Americans, was his right as a citizen.

As the media has become a conglomerate, however, expressions of honest vision like King’s have become increasingly rare. Hardly any politician will venture out on a limb, and, more to the point, it is often difficult to raise the money necessary to get behind alternative voices.

For that reason, I believe that the theater plays a significant role in the future of American democracy. Grassroots theater, in particular, has the capacity to preserve the strengths inherent in a multicultural society, to teach trust and collaboration, and to develop new thinking that addresses the issues of the day. Projects that are successful in one locality can be held up as examples in another. Wildly successful projects will prove themselves as they gather stakeholders and enthusiastic audiences.

A little bit of history about recent developments in American theater is probably useful here. The regional theater movement in America grew first out of the vision of Hallie Flanagan, a theatrical producer, director, playwright and author who was hired in 1935 to create the Federal Theater Project as part of Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration established to provide jobs to unemployed Americans during the Depression. Flanagan’s vision was to bring theater to the great majority of Americans who had never experienced it and to create new works in geographically-diverse parts of the country that were relevant to people in local communities. In 1938, Flanagan was brought to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee over concerns about the “content” and “messages” of the theater that was being produced and the Federal Theater Project was closed in 1939.

The regional theater movement began again in 1947 when Margo Jones founded Theater ’47 in Dallas, Texas. Though touring shows did exist at this time, there were no quality professional American theatre companies outside of New York. Jones believed in the decentralization of theater. She wanted her art to exist all across America, beyond the realm of commercialized Broadway. She reasoned that if she and her collaborators succeeded “in inspiring the operation of 30 theatres like ours, the playwright won’t need Broadway.”

In 1965, the National Endowment for the Arts was formed and along with the Ford Foundation was responsible for a new infusion of capital to support a growing network of regional theaters around the country. Of course, the condition for granting this money was that the theaters had to form Boards of Directors that were composed of local business leaders who would, ostensibly, be more responsible for managing the organization’s funds than the artists who had fostered and developed the regional theater movement.

This was probably the most critial moment in the movement’s history: at the same time that the financial capacity of the theaters was increased, the decision-making authority of the theaters’ original leadership was curtailed. In most cases, a Board President or senior staff person unfamiliar with the art form was put into a position to alter the artistic direction of the company. This was the moment when the regional theater movement stopped being about a vision of free expression and broad-ranging representation of American’s voices and became part of a commercial network that would ultimately be bent to serve Broadway and the film industry instead.

Insisting on fiscal responsibility is always a good thing. But the regional theater movement was built upon a larger principle than merely producing theater that generated a consistent bottom line from ticket sales. It was created to achieve an expanded dialogue with American citizens, wherever they lived, to give the most talented among them a vibrant platform for the expression of new and dissenting ideas, and to revitalize the theatrical repertoire so that people in the future would understand our experience. Lorca said it best: “Theater is the memory of a society.”

Under these circumstances, we are failing to achieve Margo Jones’ dream of a world that is free of the commercial constraints of Broadway; instead, we have ended up with dozens and dozens of smaller Broadways, each one subject to the wheeling, dealing and speculating necessary for survival under the current economic model. In the face of ever-increasing costs, these mini-Broadways have no more chance for success than the real Broadway in New York, and they are limited in how they can collaborate because they have been placed in direct competition with each other.

Theaters compete tooth and nail for local and national funding based on their individual records of success which usually entails the complete “lock-down” of plays and projects that might someday move on to Broadway or the movies. The regional theaters have, in some respects, become the tombs for extraordinary works of art and expression that may (or may not) have received a premiere production at one theater for three to six weeks and will never be produced again. Furthermore, there are almost no incentives for theater companies to produce second, third or fourth productions of plays because the economic model doesn’t currently allow for it and because there doesn’t yet fully exist a culture of trust and collaboration among theaters nationally and globally. It also makes sense that a play that will be embraced by several artistic directors, each responsible to their own constituencies, is likely to be more universally relevant and engaging than a play that cannot gather this kind of support.

This is where the Lark can make a difference in the world. First, we exist to open doors to new voices and keep them open. In an ideal sense, democracy’s main strength may be that it draws upon an entire society to enlist its leaders. If the democratic view of the world assumes that talent is as likely to occur in one citizen as another, then it is natural to conclude that the talent pool will increase as we give more citizens the chance to be heard and acknowledged.

Next, the Lark spends its days creating strategies to galvanize local communities around the important ideas of emerging and established writers who are striving to reach for more. Like the democratic process, the Lark’s process allows for dissent and open discussion, for consensus-building, decision-making, action and reassessment. Always the door remains open, free expression is encouraged, and the relationship between the individual and society is nurtured and deepened.

And, finally, we are committed to developing models for connecting successful local work to a global network. If the Lark is truly able to lead the field as “a mobilizer,” to provoke and support the creation of innovative new work on a local level and bring artists and institutional leaders together as part of a growing collaborative network of theaters, universities and community outreach organizations, we can change the face of theater in America and the world and give back to the regional theaters what they have lost as cultural institutions. We can expand every individual’s opportunity to be heard and, at the same time, ensure a new repertoire of innovative, rigorously developed works of theater that will achieve global distribution.

John Clinton Eisner
Producing Director

Friday, June 1, 2007


My very earliest challenges as a young director during the 1980’s were plays by Shakespeare. I was part of a group that started an outdoor Shakespeare festival in an area of New England where most of our audience had, at that time, never seen a play at all, much less a Shakespeare play. We were categorically not surrounded by Shakespeare experts; there was no one to tell us what the scene was about or what the words meant. The actors and I had to figure it out on our own, and we learned if we’d gotten it right when the audience came. Even when it didn’t work, it never occurred to me that there was a problem with the play that Shakespeare wrote. The burden was on me and the actors to discover the secret key to every scene, to follow the labyrinth to the treasure in the center of the play. The joy of Shakespeare is in the searching and the discovery, in the long meanderings down myriad passages of meaning, in the collaboration with one’s artistic traveling companions, and the ultimate triumph of grasping something true and good to share with an audience.

At about the same time, I started a program in the local public library where actors could read a new play aloud each week for an audience of community members. I had everything I needed for this: a gorgeous and intimate public space; a company of actors (Shakespearean actors, no less!); and a network of friends who knew lots of up-and-coming playwrights. I think it was the freshness of the entire enterprise in that tired and economically-depressed region of the country that helped this festival catch on. Audiences flocked in crazy numbers both to see the Shakespeare and to get up close to young writers in our “Plays in Progress” program.
I noticed right away, however, that there was a difference in the way people responded to Shakespeare on the one hand and new plays on the other. Due to my enthusiastic but sometimes misguided direction of the Shakespeare in the early days, audiences were occasionally confused about what was going on. Their response to this confusion about a moment in Shakespeare was to accept it, to bear personal responsibility for not understanding an idea that was, perhaps, too large to be comprehended all at once, and to focus fully on the next scene. No one questioned the playwright, not Shakespeare, though sometimes they questioned the acting and the direction; usually they bore the burden themselves.

The experience was completely different with the new plays. If audiences didn’t understand the play right away, or if someone had the slightest idea of how to make the play better in his or her estimation, audience members would not hesitate to prescribe, proscribe, re-scribe or pronounce their own solutions to challenges they perceived in the play they had just experienced. I am the kind of person who believes that people are generally good, with benevolent motives, but what could explain the conflict that arose so predictably after each play reading? I was in charge of facilitating these discussions, and, while the experience was new and exhilarating for everyone, I observed that the playwrights often felt diminished and discouraged afterwards. This had not been my intention at all, and I wracked my brains to figure it out. The answer, of course, was staring me in the face from across the park, where the Shakespeare was playing.
Here is how it goes: we expect Shakespeare to know what he is doing. He is a four hundred year old authority and a font of wisdom and truth. Done right, his plays are amazingly entertaining, emotionally engaging, and stunningly complex. We are reverential, perhaps overly so at times. However that isn’t how we think about the living, breathing playwrights who write contemporary plays. We feel we know as much about life and the world as they do. We have a thing or two to say about what they write. And, of course, we have the best of intentions; we only want to help.

This is when I formulated my “Shakespeare Rule” for talking about new plays. What if we at least pretended that every new play we approached was as perfect as a Shakespeare play? How would we talk about it differently, if we assumed that it contained everything it needed already to succeed and that the burden was on us to penetrate its meaning? What if we gave full credit to the author, whether the play works or not? What if we listened more carefully to what that author’s particular individual voice is trying to say instead of bending its meaning to suit something we already know? This was a completely different way of thinking about plays for me – and very difficult at first. But the results of this approach are very clear. Either we grow to fully understand the play as it was conceived and written by the playwright or – we don’t. We spend time discussing what the author created, not what she or he didn’t. We allow ourselves to feel uncomfortable in the presence of new or even flawed ideas. And we come to honor the leadership role that artists play in inventing the language necessary to describe and shape the future.

The Shakespeare Rule is why I was so inspired by the Laura Pels Foundation Keynote Address delivered by Richard Nelson on April 9, 2007, at the annual meeting of A.R.T./New York. Mr. Nelson speaks fervently about the necessity for taking the playwright’s leadership role seriously:

"…I am not saying that a playwright should avoid and ignore comments and reactions to his work, quite
the opposite. But I am saying that our mindset toward playwrights should be this: 1) the playwright knows what he is doing, 2) perhaps the play as presented is as it should be. So that the onus for change is not on the playwright but on others, on the theater. And the theater is there with a full array of tools to support the playwright as he or she attempts to improve upon his or her play. How to improve a play should be the domain of the writer, with the theater supplying potential tools, a reading say, or a workshop with clearly delineated goals. These are tools that should evolve out of a need, as opposed to being a given."

For those of you who want to read the whole speech, here is the link.

As for me, I have given Mr. Nelson’s recent words a prominent place in my thoughts. I have labeled it “the Nelson Principle” and it resides in my library next to “the Shakespeare Rule.” I’ve made lots of copies to share with the playwrights we work with, in case they haven’t seen it already.

John Clinton Eisner

Producing Director