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