Central to the Lark’s mission is our work with artists from different countries and cultures. Over the years, I’ve traveled abroad to work with playwrights and theater makers in order to better understand how they see the world and express themselves differently than I do because of the unique vantage point of their geography and history. I’ve observed, too, the complex relationship between each of the nations I’ve visited and the visions of artists who call that nation their home. I am as intrigued by the surface stereotypes of national identity, and our tendency to want to simplify the world around us, as I am by how social and political themes provoke gifted artists to respond in individual ways. Certainly, a successful playwright reflects the truth of her country’s experience—and her own—back at its citizens, and the resulting dialogue is inextricably linked to that particular culture. But after my most recent trip to Romania last month, I noticed something new in the way the creative process differs from culture to culture. This is not strictly an observation about Romania, but about the creation of art in general. Something like a theory is forming in my mind (though it is way too early to call it by that name) which I will think about and test in the coming months.
Here it is: it occurs to me that every process we implement—everything we do—is a reflection of how our societies and families are structured. This is true even of how we make our theater. Freud saw this congruence in repeated patterns of behavior within his field of psychology. And I think that, similarly, in the creation of our art, we trace and retrace the patterns of our social structure, both to reinforce what is comfortable and to name our fears. In Romania, for instance, it is hard not to notice that the nation’s theater is guided—really, driven—by charismatic stage directors at the expense of significant participation by many other theater artists. This structure in Romanian theater makes absolute sense to me; Romanian society, haunted by the specter of a long and brutal dictatorship, returns again and again to explore—in its art and in the way it makes its art—the relationship between authority and submission.
Romania is by no means alone in this pathology. The reenactment of social oppression within the creative process exists as strongly, though differently, in other former communist countries, in “emerging democracies,” and in the United States, where, despite our self-characterization as a democracy, we have long suppressed the value of individual freedoms in favor of commercialism and entitlement. Concentrating power in the hands of a few people, whether in a monarchy, dictatorship, church state, or corporate oligarchy, makes for a sense of security and stability if not equal rights for citizens. Concentrated power comes at the expense of individual creativity and the many innovative solutions to critical challenges that become available in a society that is fundamentally democratic.
We are in a rut and need to change. Are there new ways of creating and developing works of theater that don’t rely on power struggle, but instead on trust, respect and the fundamentals of true democracy? Might it even be possible to influence new directions in society and politics by supporting a wide variety of creative processes in the art we make? Can the notion of working together—collaborating, and not compromising—transform our world?
On the eve of a Presidential election that will stand as a marker for change, no matter which candidate is elected, the Lark is poised to ask some very important questions about the role theater will play in America’s future and about the relationship between the very ideas of creativity and community. If you’ve followed some of the Lark’s happy accomplishments recently—our $500,000 Mellon grant, our special selection for new play innovation as part of a new program of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Arena Theater, our Booth Ferris Award to support more aggressive fundraising for artist compensation and fellowships, our TCG/New Generations mentorship of a future leader for the theater—you will get a sense of the kind of infrastructure that we are working to create so that artist of all stripes can come together to imagine brave new worlds and bold new ways of bringing these worlds together.
The idea in therapy, of course, is to identify the unhelpful patterns in one’s own behavior in order to be in a position to make a change. Can this concept be extended in larger ways, within our communities, to track pernicious patterns in the fabric of our social and political landscape and, through the creative process, transform them? It is an immense task, like energy independence or universal healthcare, but I think that change is possible if we begin today.
John Clinton Eisner