Friday, July 23, 2010

June/August 2010 – John Clinton Eisner, Lark Producing Director


By John Clinton Eisner

The world is becoming more interconnected every day, adding new complexity to our lives which we may choose to ignore or to accept as a challenge that will make us stronger. These changes are happening in media, technology, manufacturing, banking, farming, environmental science and energy production, and many other fields. Fueled by the global economic downturn, I’ve observed that activism is increasing and communities seem to be organizing themselves to collectively address shared problems. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has certainly raised new questions about government and corporate accountability, and this man-made disaster has forced huge adjustments in people’s lives, impacting the global economy and our assumptions that interest groups take time to seriously consider the long term consequences of their actions. Articles such as Time Magazine’s “The Global Warming Survival Guide” (on the web at,29569,1602354,00.html) are increasingly pervasive and demonstrate a renewed interest among individuals in making a difference on a personal level.

Obviously, there are many constructive strategies for pursuing a sustainable and peaceful future in a global society, and the internet has helped to make us aware of a vast array of ideas and initiatives taking place as part of an unstoppable wave of global innovation which will affect our lives in ways we can only begin to predict. With so many people organizing around so many issues, however, the root challenge, as far as I can tell, is how effectively people will talk and listen to one another. What does it take for us to receive information and to process new ideas in the midst of crisis? How will we do this in a globalized environment that involves many languages and cultural differences?

Culture and the arts are critical to this function, not simply for the outcomes that delight and inspire us but also for the creative process that the arts ignite in artists and audiences. Art—and theater in particular—is where we play out the consequences of our choices and where we learn to understand others. To feel for them as we feel for ourselves. It is the rehearsal hall for life. I don’t think that much change in the world will be possible, at least without violence, if we don’t focus on developing honest communication that builds trust, quality education that leads to intercultural respect, and a capacity for imagining ourselves in other people’s shoes.

I work at the Lark Play Development Center, where we help talented theater artists write and advance new plays for the theater. But, for me, our real purpose is to organize people—artists and citizens alike—into laboratory groups to learn how to collaborate. If our society is attempting to imagine the world in new ways, can we learn to take advantage of the creative process that artists have always known in inventing worlds of their own, and the laws that guide them? In the face of so much global misunderstanding, can we use the arts as a way to invent a vocabulary with which we can describe our versions of a desirable future to one another and find ways of playing them out?

One of my most significant discoveries over the past ten years is that the experience of art is only partially contained in its performance. The truth is that the intersections between artist and audience are often fleeting and arbitrary, sometimes awakening the mind and senses but just as often resulting in disappointment. This experience is very much like any relationship I’ve ever known that is complex and rich and requires passion and commitment. These relationships are remembered as a series of important moments—performances, if you will—and, whether these moments denote admirable or despicable behavior, they live in our memories and tend to outshine the spaces in between. We hold onto the narrative of our lives by celebrating these moments at parties and documenting them with photos and clippings.

But if I shift my perspective a bit, I observe that the space between the milestones is real, too. The experience of preparing to do my best, calling upon inner resources, growing in my capabilities, and learning how to collaborate with new and different people is what I do daily. It is what many of us do daily, whether we work in the theater or in another field. It is where creativity really matters, certainly as much as it does onstage under the lights. This is true of the surgeon, whose skill seems to be tested in surgery but is actually only the outcome of a lifetime of personal and professional development. Performance, while important, is only a small corner of a tapestry woven out of human creative experience. Performance as an end unto itself is, I believe, a selfish act of showing off, like an unwanted child who is forced by his constrained environment and the selfishness of others to demand the attention he has been denied. On the other hand, performance as a moment in a continuum along the process of discovery is a way to include others and to grow.

I feel this personal conviction about the importance of creative environments more than ever right now. I am flying home to New York City from my most recent visit to Transylvania. My 14 year-old daughter Hannah is traveling with me, and we are exhausted and elated at what we’ve learned about ourselves during our 11-day journey in Romania. Hannah joined me, along with a delegation of Lark playwrights—Michael Bradford, Brian Dykstra and Saviana Stanescu—to work with artists and students in the city of Targu Mures where the population of 150,000 is roughly half Hungarian and half Romanian with a few other ethnicities and languages thrown in. We worked with a dozen students who had translated plays by Michael and Saviana into both languages. Brian led a hip-hop workshop as part of his process of developing a new play in that style. We led multilingual playwriting workshops with Master Degree playwrights at the Theater University at Targu Mures. Hannah took video footage of discussion and dialogue, frequently punctuated by laughter and occasionally witnessing moments of true epiphany. Hannah also took an afternoon off to bake cookies with one of her new friends, the daughter of the university’s director. If anything was understood by all participants by the time this convening was over, it was something about the difference between a “teaching environment” and a “learning laboratory."

These two paradigms are distinct from one another, and they define something that is at the core of my own beliefs and my faith in humanity. An environment created by respect and trust, in which every participant expects to learn something new, is the most effective crucible for change because it fuels confidence and creativity. The gentle and appreciative inquiry of a learning laboratory, in which the creator is viewed as the expert and not the student, is, ultimately, far more rigorous and effective than more rigid forms of teaching that don't take into account that what we expect of the next generation is to take responsibility for the world in which we live. This fact is obvious when you consider how much better we are able to hear other people, and to be heard, when sharing is the primary goal.