Thursday, January 8, 2009

The ‘Why’ of Theatre in the 21st Century by John Clinton Eisner

I’ve noticed that when a group of experts in any field get together, they tend to talk about the “how” and not the “why.” From what I know, the participants in the Manhattan Project didn’t spend much time pondering the ethics or implications of the bomb they were assigned to make. They focused on the “how” and they made it. I don’t mean to imply that a rationale hadn’t been constructed by others at the time to justify nuclear technology or even the bomb itself. That rationale was very clear and well publicized. But my understanding is that the question of “why” was discouraged among the scientists.

I know that this observation is not revolutionary, but I’ve been thinking about this idea of the “how” and the “why” a lot this year in the wake of collapsing financial markets and escalating political tensions. I think about Bernard Madoff and all the others in the financial field who were given the go-ahead to generate an illusion of wealth and then assigned the mission of figuring out how. Even in more bland terms, I think about the mandate we’ve given Silicon Valley to generate the best software or Starbucks to produce the most consistent cup of coffee. If you give talented folks a job and a deadline, it is amazing how far they can go. Until they come up against the real question: “Why?”

I see in these examples a very definite pattern of behavior firmly rooted in the American psyche, though I am inclined to believe that it is not limited to Americans but resides more generally in human nature. This pattern is tribal and involves a form of unilateral decision making that brooks little dissent once a course of action has been set. It makes sense that this behavior exists, really, in that its impulse is the preservation of social order through a centralized power structure. In this model, the chief assigns the troops a military objective, for instance, like securing territory or developing weapons capabilities. The chief provides the rationale, and the troops (i.e., the “experts”) carry out the task without question. However, history has demonstrated again and again that the problem with this pattern is that it invariably leads to irreconcilable conflict and the tribe’s—or nation’s—demise.

And just because this behavioral pattern is a tendency, it doesn’t make it right. Even if our very genes and social codes pull us in that direction, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t consider—and pursue—alternative patterns of behavior. This is the challenge of creating a better and lasting democratic society.

In a democratic society, decision making is ongoing, re-assessable, and permeates the process. In fact, the concept of “process” is essential to democracy and any society of inclusiveness that strives for positive social change. If we make the hard choice to truly embrace democratic society, we will need to learn new and more complex communications strategies than the ones that served the old tribal system. We will need to look for different metaphors for behavior than those of war and dominance.

I suggest that the places for us to test drive these new patterns of behavior—that our future survival will require—is in fields like education, the arts, sports, and international relations. All we have to do is open our eyes to see the examples that already exist. For instance, no one knows how to channel primal human energy in productive ways like a kindergarten teacher. And nothing gets closer to solutions for community development than the nurturing of talent, the making of art, and the celebration of local voices.

Or, if you are familiar with the Lark, you may know that one of the basic building blocks of our process is the roundtable. A roundtable is a very flexible format, usually a gathering of a few actors and friends with a director and playwright who come together at the playwright’s request to hear a new piece of work and to support the playwright in setting goals for bringing the work to the next level. At the Lark, the playwright represents the very idea of free individual expression and leadership capacity.

I sometimes think of the roundtable as the DNA of the Lark because its very simplicity supports our core value that the playwright is author and determiner of the direction of her/his project. Somehow, the format keeps people’s feet on the ground while encouraging imaginative response—all under the author’s control.

While it is a cardinal principle at the Lark that we don’t “fix” plays—we believe that only the author knows enough about the geography of the play to guide its growth—we have observed that creativity rarely occurs in a vacuum and that healthy discussion generates genuine enthusiasm for compelling work and opens up avenues of inquiry that might otherwise be ignored.

The most powerful aspects of the roundtable is not only that it brings together a circle of supportive collaborators but, at its best, represents a circle of diverse perspectives. At a roundtable, it is the job of each participant to try to see through the eyes of the other people at the table and to support the creator with rigor and respect. When it succeeds, a roundtable instills in its playwright the calm clear voice of “why.”

2009 is going to be a time for all of us to think more deeply than we have in recent memory about where we’re headed as a society and the tools we’ll need to get there. Starting this year, the Lark is planning to use the idea of the roundtable for larger conversations with Lark community members and people from fields outside the theater. We are interested in understanding more about the “why” of live theater in the twenty-first century, what the field has to offer society as a whole, and what society can tell us about how to shape the theater of the future.

The bulk of this community roundtable project will be led over the next two years by our TCG/New Generations Leadership Fellow, May Adrales, for whom the relationship between theater and community is a critical and passionate interest. In addition, we will be inviting guest essayists share their unique perspectives about the use of theater in a rapidly globalizing society.

It is my belief that the theater plays a critical role, especially at times like these, in shaping our values and establishing a stronger sense of community by providing a forum where different ways of thinking can safely intersect. The theater is a laboratory to examine human behavior as we encounter it in the imaginative world of the artist’s creation. It is through the eyes of our artists that we will see and know the future.

That is why the Lark has invested the last 15 years in playwrights—in the unheard voices of the newest playwrights, the newest ideas of the most established playwrights, and differing perspectives of writers from many cultures and countries—all gathered around the table at the Lark. Through our careful attention to teach individual voice, we are investing in leadership, inspiration and a renewed sense of community, direction and purpose.