Friday, October 9, 2009

October 2009 - John Clinton Eisner

The Island Swim

by John Clinton Eisner

When I finished writing this essay, I realized that it had gotten very personal. I have been struggling recently with some grave doubts about the efficacy and inclusiveness of our cultural institutions, including our theaters, and, not so coincidentally, my own sense of worth as a practitioner and artist. Throughout my life, I have been kept aloft and energized by a sense of joy and wonder at what people can accomplish when they set their minds to it. Joy and wonder, leading to inspiration and action, are tightly knit together as important aspects of my personal life, and I was drawn to the theater as a vocation for this reason. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm,” and I have always seen enthusiasm—from the Greek entheos, “having the god within”—as the spark that sets off the creative process from which I have always derived sustaining warmth. My tendency is to expect the best of people—not the worst—and my experience is mostly that we all step up when others believe in us. But recently I have felt a bit defensive and self-conscious about my joy and wonder, as though my emotional response to the world is somehow out of joint—a bit too large, a caricature, like Carol Channing’s smile or the tail that wags the dog. I have always been enthusiastic about the power of theater to connect people through stories of common experience, but these days I don’t think that we, collectively, are fulfilling our potential in reaching out across cultural and ideological lines to find true points of contact, and I think that we have practically shut ourselves down to possibilities for change.

My conversations with peers tend to focus on common concerns like “Risk-taking in the arts,” “Sharing resources through collaboration,” and “Reaching new audiences through new media.” While these issues are well worth discussing and central to the survival of mainstream theater as we know it, I think there are more fundamental questions lurking below the surface that we are generally unwilling to ask because we might not like the answers: “What do we actually mean by ‘risk?’” “How do we define ‘success?’” “What attracts people to the theater?” “Who do we want in our theaters?” “What must we sacrifice in order to succeed?” The answers to these deeper questions are game-changing. If we were to reframe our assumptions about theater’s role in society—how it is underwritten, who makes decisions, and why it is important—the institutions that we have long considered cornerstones of our culture might topple. Naturally, this line of inquiry extends beyond arts and culture to a broader spectrum of social institutions in education, religion, social justice, science and health care, national security, and more. The theater, as usual, is merely a metaphor for something more universal.

Having embraced a commitment to “change” in the last election, are we afraid of a vacuum? We asked for change, but, having cleared the old furniture from the room, we seem uncomfortable with the empty space we have to fill, and ambivalent about setting new directions and dividing power fairly. During my lifetime, we’ve adapted to the touch tone telephone, the fax, the microwave oven, and recycling; but are we brave enough as a society (are we brave enough as arts institutions?) to open the doors of opportunity to everyone—democracy at its most basic level—and, in the spirit of free expression, invite a more broadly diverse community to redefine our culture in practice and purpose? Can we find the joy and wonder in entering into new, cross-cultural conversations, difficult as they might be, before they happen anyway, perhaps more violently, outside the realms of art and play? Change is happening in the world, there is no doubt about it. Demographics and wealth are shifting, often violently. Now, more than ever, we require vision, on a huge scale, to shine a light on where we are going. But, even more important, we must acknowledge that big dreams are not accomplished overnight like in the movies, but in tiny steps, with great effort, as part of a community. This may be the one thing that people in the theater know better than anyone else, because we invented the concept of “rehearsal.” We know that no matter how much we look forward to opening night, it takes a lot to get there if we want to succeed on our own terms.

I love the theater because it celebrates very small moments in which individuals come to recognize the truth that allows them to change. Somehow, perhaps counter-intuitively, these small moments, the pivot points in people’s lives, seem to pack more of a wallop than big events and spectacle ever can. Anyone who has seen a Pulitzer prize-winning photograph understands this principle. Good politicians know that one good human story gets more votes than all the statistics in the world. Small things can be intense and powerful, and we are well aware that good things often come in small packages. But small, purposeful steps taken in a clear direction are different from small gestures disconnected from real intent, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. How can we get “on task” again? How can we let go of the artificial commercial “metrics” that have dominated our recent and misguided era of profligacy, and look for measures of success that lead to success and growth for people’s spirits as well as their stomachs?

When I was a boy, growing up in Madison, Wisconsin, I spent three weeks each summer at YMCA Camp Manito-wish in the North Woods where I was exposed to opportunities and challenges that were not available to me at home. I learned to chop wood, cook over a fire, respect the wilderness, and rely on my peers. I fell in love with the older woman who was in charge of the sailboats—a college student with kind, blue eyes—though, at the time, I am sure I imagined that my infatuation was a secret from her. I shot bows and arrows and fired guns, which, for me, was a massive act of rebellion: my father, an active protester of the Viet Nam War—a doctor who worked for the U.S. government but refused to cut his hair during Nixon’s entire tenure in office and was prolific in writing lengthy protest letters to various members of Congress—would not permit even a squirt gun in the house (I had to hide mine in the bushes in the front yard). I swam and ran and climbed all day and fell asleep early at night, exhausted. At twelve, my favorite activity at camp was the canoe trips we’d take into the wilderness, often for a week or more. Strangely, the best part of those trips, to me, were the portages—the sweaty, hellish, brushy, buggy slogs between pristine bodies of water which we’d undertake laden with gear. I preferred to carry the canoe, which was nearly as heavy as I was, rather than one of the bulging canvas packs. I’d fasten on the yoke, awkwardly flip the canoe onto my back, and stagger down an overgrown path, sometimes a mile long, my bony shoulders blistering from the weight and motion, counting every step to divert my attention from the pain, loving the calls of encouragement and admiration from my peers. I felt a sense of glorious accomplishment as I lowered the canoe into the water on the other side, even if I’d had to stop a few times along the way.

I am profoundly fortunate for these wilderness experiences that taught me many things about myself. I faced my fears, walking alone in the dark woods at night; I recognized my limitations, sighting with my weak eyes through a rifle’s scope or swimming through murky water without the benefit of my glasses; I grew to value the freedom that open space celebrates; and I was part of fortunate community of peers who were learning about themselves in the same way, growing stronger and self-reliant in relationship to nature and the world. Many people never experience the glow of joy that I felt each time I lowered a canoe into the water after a long, hard walk—a joy I still experience in my imagination when I travel back in my memory 35 years. It is not as though my life did not contain hardship; it did. My father suffered from manic depression in a time before effective drugs existed to manage his condition. He filled the house with his love, except for the times when he could not climb out of a dark despair I could not begin to comprehend, and eventually took his own life. It is funny, though, that despite the size of his mood swings, I think it was my father who taught me the value of patience and determination in pursuit of big dreams. Perhaps his manic depression forced him to embrace a strategy of moving forward by incremental steps, of fighting little battles one at a time on the way to where he wanted to be. At any rate, I distinctly remember coming home from camp at the age of 12 and that my father stopped what he was doing and listened to me attentively as I described how I’d carried that canoe on my shoulders. It is an important memory to me because, for a moment, I saw myself in his eyes, the child growing fast into adulthood, choosing the path to walk and the burden to bear, over whom he had little control but a great deal at stake.

I have learned in life that it usually takes a long time to create something wonderful. I have also learned that patience and persistence are elusive skills that pay off immensely. And it takes big vision to imagine change, to describe a different way of perceiving something even before it exists. And pursuing a vision, accomplishing bits and pieces of it a step at a time, creates joy. And joy infuses us with the desire to see it in others, which is itself another kind of vision of the future.

The funny thing to me is that when we get stuck in a rut, we tend to run around in circles trying to justify why it is important to stay there. As a species we are resourceful and can adapt to change—that is the hunter-gatherer-adventurer in us—but we also have the nesting instinct that compels us to settle down and make ourselves as comfortable as possible within any given circumstances. Change is a gamble much more significant than financial risk as it is tied to our identity and sense of purpose as well as to our fortunes. It isn’t just that the theater industry is stuck in a rut, but that we could do something about changing our circumstance if we chose. We could try to listen to more new voices and work with each other to encourage others to do the same thing. It would be kind of wonderful if people actually came to view the theater as the platform for free discussion that it was founded to be in ancient Greece.

I heard the legendary performer Tony Bennett interviewed on the radio a few days ago and he made a case for the role of the arts in society that stopped me in my tracks. Bennett, 83, believes that America grew strong as a nation because we valued the pursuit of individual vision and achievement—that is to say, excellence—and that its current decline, with respect to wealth, education and culture, social justice, and other social indicators, stems from our shift to valuing quantity over quality. Automobiles, for example. No matter how many cars we produce, how big they are, or how many we sell, it doesn’t make America, or Detroit, a better place simply to increase productivity and dominate the market. The only thing that will make a difference is the goal of making those cars better, for the right reasons, which is really more like art than commerce. Bennett says the only pathway to excellence that civilization has ever invented is the arts. The arts are the guiding beacon and central metaphor for the pursuit of truth. Through trial and error, risk-taking, rehearsals, and a vision of how we’d like the world to be, we agree to a set of common values that we can count on. Thank you, Tony Bennett, for reminding me that our faith in what is good, in each song about love, in the story of a child growing into an adult, are the things that matter, and we should attempt to do them well!

There is a tiny island across from Camp Manito-wish, about a half mile away on the other side of Boulder Lake. The island is covered by a tangle of birch trees and brambles and, at the top of its steep embankment, just enough flat space for a small tent and a campfire. I’ve visited it from time to time in a canoe with my 10 year-hold son, Jake. Over the past several years, my family has joined me in late August for “family camp” at Camp Manito-wish. That my family recognizes the importance of this place in my life is very moving to me, and I am grateful to them. Anyway, this past August I swam all the way to the island and back. A year ago I didn’t think I could do it—or would attempt it. But I practiced a lot and did it after all. It was fun. I never thought I would do the island swim, and now I plan to do it again. Maybe you want to join me?


  1. Thanks for sharing this, John - beautiful thoughts.

  2. I too had a camp, a canoe, and an island.
    Thx, John.
    and for the swim? I'm in.