At the Lark, we think about the artistic growth of our company in two distinct ways. The first, probably the easiest, may be described as “broadening.” Broadening expands the involvement and diversity of participants in our programs and the number of projects that we support. This kind of growth is important because it is about opening doors to new ideas and new worlds and is one of the critical functions that theater performs in our society. These activities allow members of our community to see quite a bit of the world, hear lots of stories, plunge into brand new adventures, and wrap their minds around a wide array of experiences.
The second kind of growth may be called “deepening.” If broadening is compared to dating, then deepening is about committing to a relationship, learning from it, and making it work. Deepening, in a certain respect, is what begins to happen after a series of successful dates have occurred and respect is established, goals are agreed upon, and new ideas are imagined and tested collaboratively. Deepening involves setting clear priorities and developing more sophisticated communications tools. It involves a deeper investment in a project or a group of collaborators, and increased stakes. One of the most the most meaningful aspects of the theater to me is how it intensifies – and, yes, deepens – my experience of the world.
As the Lark continues to develop artistic programs, raise funds, build staff capacity, travel to find new voices, and stand behind those we already know, we are constantly balancing these twin notions of broadening and deepening to achieve growth, to sustain ourselves, and to impact the world around us in the ways consistent with our mission. However, this tension between two kinds of growth is not unique to the Lark, but also applies to every nonprofit and commercial institution concerned with achieving its mission. The idea also applies to every individual’s personal growth from the time we are children and throughout our lives. And, finally, this dilemma about growth integral to the much wider framework of the arts in society and how we struggle with the challenge of connecting people to their communities, and to a rapidly globalizing world, through culture.
In the larger context of the American theater, then, there is a similar tension between two dynamic forces that guide the industry’s growth in order to provide access to more people and to strengthen the quality of artistic work overall. On the one hand, the principles of democratization and decentralization, which are core components of American ideology, have led to the expansion of theater to communities all across the country and to the establishment of our regional theater network. More Americans than ever before are connected to local arts communities that generate indigenous art and there is a thrilling new interplay between locally-developed work and work “imported” from other arts markets. On the other hand, as theater artists have spread out around the country and are less concentrated in New York City, there is, at least temporarily, a diminution of regular interactivity among the most skilled members of the field. Once upon a time in New York City, the majority of American theater artists could see each others’ work, discuss it, riff on it, and grow from their close interaction. Today, as part of the process of decentralizing the art form, artists in the regional theaters are more isolated from one another than in the past and rely more on the internet, theater journals, and long-distance travel to stay aware of new developments in the field. Because the most talented arts leaders are so thinly spread across the country, the members of the field bear an increased burden for making a “case” to their constituencies for the existence and value of the art they create and for the funding it requires.
A couple of years ago, along with Lark colleague Daniella Topol, I attended a two-day workshop presented by National Arts Strategies on the subject of “Creative Alliances.” N.A.S. is an initiative of the Harvard and Stanford University Business Schools that supports deeper thinking by arts leaders, and we attended this event in order to learn more about ways of partnering with others. There, we became aware of a concept known as “cluster economics.” According to the website of the Economic Development Administration at the U.S. Department of Commerce, “Industry clusters are geographic concentrations of competing, complementary, or interdependent firms and industries that do business with each other and/or have common needs for talent, technology, and infrastructure.” This idea has been around for a long time and is based on concepts developed by British economist Alfred Marshall around 1890 and significantly expanded upon by Harvard economist Michael E. Porter in 1990. Notable examples of business clusters include the California and French wine industries, Detroit’s auto industry, Connecticut’s insurance industry, northern Italy’s fashion industry, Hollywood’s film industry, gambling in Las Vegas, and Silicon Valley.
Although economists generally agreed that clusters had been critically important to many fields in creating competitive advantages, many economists imagined that clusters would become less important with the advent of the internet, improved transportation, and globalization. Not so. The success of Silicon Valley and similar high tech corporate communities throughout the world has proven that clusters are still important – partly because geographic proximity is still useful on the manufacturing end of the market, but more so because competitive advantage is sustained only through relentless improvements to the producer’s product and organization. Porter states that clusters impact competition and create competitive advantage in three ways: by increasing productivity of the companies based in the cluster; by driving the direction and pace of innovation, which underpins future productivity growth; and by stimulating the formation of new businesses, which expands and strengthens the cluster, forming a virtuous circle or positive feedback (Kuah, Adrian T.H. “Cluster Theory and Practice: Advantages for the Small Business Locating in a Vibrant Cluster.” Journal of Research in Marketing and Entrepreneurship. Volume Four, Issue 3, 2002: 206).
To understand what cluster economics has to do with theater, and because innovation is one of the Lark’s primary concerns as a research and development institution in the theater industry, let’s focus on the innovation end of things for a moment. Let’s imagine a café in Silicon Valley where four creative thinkers from the computer industry are gathering for a few hours to chat about what’s on their minds. During their time together, this casually convened “think tank” will share dozens of out-of-the-box ideas about technology innovation. Most of these new ideas will be abandoned after the group has poked holes in them, of course, but one or two ideas may stick. The solid ideas that survive the group’s intensive scrutiny will generate dozens of more refined ideas, and these ideas will be brought to the table the next time the group gets together at the café. Not only will these four people, and the companies for which they work, benefit from this in-depth analysis, but many of the most unproductive ideas will be more quickly identified and eliminated before valuable resources are unnecessarily expended on them. In addition, from the start, this brainstorming of successful ideas will include cooperation strategies to link partner firms within the cluster. Similarly, clusters in the theater have supported healthy innovation and artistic growth in the theater industry. Great theater minds have met – and have been created – at the Algonquin Roundtable, Elaine’s, Sardi’s and at numerous other hot spots. With the expansion of the theater beyond Broadway and New York City, some of the competitive advantages of clustering have been temporarily lost. We have broadened the theater industry very successfully, but perhaps we can learn more from the business world about deepening the theater industry by reengaging in successful cluster strategies to support innovation, cooperation, and community engagement.
A related challenge is that this national proliferation of resident theaters has raised the exposure of new or controversial ideas that may seem threatening to many communities not yet prepared for change or ideological friction. While the theater business was safely confined to New York City, bands of artists touring around the country were little more than a temporary curiosity or cautionary example. But as new clusters form in other American cities, the ideas they develop – and the artists developing them – become part of the local scene and need to be dealt with on a daily basis. It is clear that the direction the American Theatre has taken during the past century, broadening its national presence while supporting democracy by providing a platform for free expression, has constantly encountered resistance. As new clusters are born, and as they deepen and become truly integrated into local culture, communities are becoming more engaged in the arts – though often this progress seems to take one step back for each two steps forward.
America ’s widespread network of regional theaters is to a large extent the outgrowth of two large-scale arts movements during the twentieth century. The first of these national expansions was the creation in 1935 of the Federal Theatre Project, a New Deal initiative by the Works Projects Administration during the Great Depression. Hallie Flanagan, appointed as the leader of the FTP, described this program in her essay, “Democracy and the Drama,” as representing “…the new frontier in America, a frontier against disease, dirt, poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and despair….” However, Roosevelt’s New Deal immediately came under fire by those who believed that it represented unwarranted federal involvement in many aspects of American life, eroding State’s Rights and long-held values of individualism and self-determination. These critics were also concerned about the threat to America of fascism and communism which was on the rise overseas, and so, in 1938, the House of Representatives established the Un-American Activities Committee to safeguard against unwanted political influences. The Federal Theatre Project, which championed free speech and marginalized populations (believed to be susceptible to the influence of malevolent foreign interests), was a prime target for the committee and the FTP was decommissioned within a year. Nevertheless, theater pioneers, like Margo Jones in Dallas, Zelda Fichandler in Washington, D.C., and Bill Ball in San Francisco, kept their shoulders to the grindstone to deeply connect theater to their respective communities.
The second growth surge of the resident regional theater movement came in the wake of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, when the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ford Foundation joined forces in the mid 1960’s to expand the nation’s cultural infrastructure. This ambitious effort supported the construction of huge new arts centers, created fund streams for individual artists and companies, and supplied generous challenge grants which provoked new levels of private philanthropic giving that has become a critical component of the current not-for-profit model. This second national arts movement declined during the “culture wars” of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, when Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina led a campaign to impose content restrictions on federally funded arts projects which ultimately led to widespread elimination of support for individual artists. When the money moved away from the artists and into the hands of professional managers and board members at institutions, what had previously been a substantially artist-driven movement quickly became a market-driven business focused more on pleasing consumers than on creating art. As we face mounting economic, political and social challenges today, we are confronted by the bald fact that the arts culture we may desire to enable meaningful social advancement is not fully supportable by a market economy, and that we are in need of new and innovative approaches to funding the arts and allowing freedom of expression.
Both of these twentieth century movements were launched by the impulse to democratize and decentralize the arts in America. Each effort was connected to deeply-held convictions, rooted in the American experience, about the importance of entrepreneurship and individual free thought, the value of locally-generated art, and the broad distribution of talent that could make it just as possible to encounter meaningful art in Nebraska as in New York. This impulse to grow and serve the interests of a broader American public, by supporting the idiosyncratic genius of as-yet-unheard leaders, remains central to the psyche of the American Theatre – and the Lark – and is the force that drives many of this country’s best practitioners to create new work despite rising commercial and political pressures. However, I think that we have spread ourselves out quite enough for the time being. Our next job is to hunker down and go deeper into our own communities, to grow our roots, to seek meaning in the local impact of theater, and to celebrate each cluster’s unique attributes. Just as a child experiences growing pains when her bones grow faster than the muscles that connect them, we are experiencing new challenges in meeting the access needs of our artists and audiences while deepening the quality and relevance of new work that is being creating in many communities around the country.
John Clinton Eisner