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