Thursday, September 16, 2010

September 2010-John Clinton Eisner, Lark Producing Director


By John Clinton Eisner

At our annual season launch potluck event this week, we talked about home and community. This subject is on our minds right now partly because the Lark is moving to a new and improved space in December. The design process for this real estate project has engaged us in many exciting conversations with artists and other stakeholders as we’ve explored the best means for meeting the needs of a growing constituency and an evolving role in the theater field as a proponent of new and unheard voices. One of the most rewarding outcomes, as far as I am concerned, is the reaffirmation that the Lark’s core values are safe in the hands of our community. In discussing subjects ranging from the electrical system to floor coverings, committee participants have never become distracted by the smoke and mirrors of architectural possibility but have focused like a laser beam on our mission and vision.

It is enough to make my eyes well up with tears to hear a roomful of people deeply concerned about the disadvantages of having a “fancy lobby” because it might unreasonably raise the expectations of an audience about to see a work in process. I remember a member of one group grumbling, “I think people should just arrive at the Lark, not at some shiny lobby.” Naturally, these brainstorming sessions have informed the planning and design for the new space; but this processing time has also renewed our consciousness of the values that have shaped us and made us who we are. In this moment of transition, as we move to a new and better home, our community has reasserted its commitments to the ideals of free expression, self-determination, collaboration, inclusiveness, innovation, respect, trust, and joy in the creative process. I had been worried that a real estate project might distract us from our goals, but it turns out that our ranks are full of watchdogs and whistle blowers who keep us true to ourselves.

Our space planning sessions have inspired us to reinvest in our community. As we’ve grown—as more artists come to us with new challenges and as we have taken on broader responsibility for facilitating a range of collaborations—we’ve simply run out of room for people to “drop by.” Once upon a time, Lark community members could simply show up to read a script, wait for their next appointment, or meet a friend, but then our institution grew to a point where all the extra space was needed for programs and to squeeze workstations for staff and interns. The idea that we will have community space again when we move is critical to our mission of connecting to our neighborhood as well as to artists from around the world for whom the Lark has become an important destination.

In addition to building a physical home where our community can gather to plan and work, our commitment to reinvesting in our community this year manifests itself in a variety of related strategic priorities:

We support artists as agents of change in the world through an enhanced staff that now reflects our program structure. Simply put, we have put a qualified staff member in charge of three core areas of Lark activity: Andrea Heibler was promoted to the position of Artistic and Literary Coordinator, in charge of “Scouting and Assessment;” May Adrales has moved from a two-year prestigious TCG New Generations Future Leaders Fellowship at the Lark to her new position of Onsite Program Director; and Lisa Rothe joined us most recently, this past winter, as Director of Offsite Programs and Partnerships, overseeing international exchange, our Mellon-funded collaboration initiative called “Launching New Plays Into the Repertoire,” our university partnerships and more.

In addition, we consider our fundraising mandate unique in the field in that our development department is not only charged with seeking operating funds for the organization but fellowships and stipends that allow artists the time they need to do their work. We have a strategic interest in growing our fundraising staff and its professional skills in order to meet the twin challenges of securing long-term financial stability for the organization while providing direct services to artists seeking creative freedom. Financial stability means a broader base of donors, a growing board, wider recognition in society, a healthy reserve fund, and an “opportunity” fund that allows us to invest, as one of the nation’s leading “think tanks for the theater,” in new voices and underrepresented communities. Success will also mean raising the bar for artists economically and setting an example in our culture for the value of artists’ work. That is one of the reasons that our four year-old Playwrights’ of New York Fellowship is so important to us and to the field at large.

We are also committed to facilitating collaborations and partnerships locally, nationally and globally through our Mellon-funded collaboration program that aims to advance new work from the Lark to multiple productions as well as through partnerships with theaters and universities. For instance, we have created a Playwriting Camp in Transylvania with a university partner in Romania as part of a brand new graduate writing program that allows emerging writers in post-communist Europe to gain skills while creating translations of works by U.S. writers that are being produced over there. Similar Lark initiatives are taking place with partners throughout the U.S. and in countries like Mexico, Colombia, Russia, the Philippines and the Netherlands. The fact that all three Pulitzer finalists last year wrote their “breakaway” plays at the Lark is connected to the idea that most plays—and playwrights—will succeed as a result of multiple productions and multiple “homes.”

We believe that audiences are as much a part of the creative process as they are the market for the ultimate “product.” Our focus is on deepening relationships between artists and audience members within the context of the development process. Audiences that understand and appreciate the growth of unique works of art become the best champions and sponsors of new work in a free society. In fact, like public education and public health, the idea of public culture relies on the everyday participation of ordinary citizens in the creation of work that engages them in meaningful civic dialogue. We explore this relationship with audiences both on site at the Lark—in every program that we offer (even at roundtables where the audience may only be comprise of two or three people)—and offsite on college campuses and in regional theaters where we assess the evolution of each play at the same time as we examine its relationship to each unique community.

Of all our strategic priorities, it is the area of access, inclusiveness, and diversity that is most important to the Lark’s identity, to the space we are creating now, and to our future. In a world that has become entirely interconnected through financial systems, the media, migration and the environment, to name just a few factors, it is the Lark’s primary mission to listen for new voices, to help fragile ideas come to light, to support the recombination of stories and cultures to reflect new manifestations of society, and to bring people together in peace around the stories that convey their values and heritage. While I am proud that several of the plays that have been nurtured at the Lark recently are moving to Broadway in the near future, bringing diverse stories to a mainstream audience, it is really in the Petri dish of “what if” and “I’ve got a crazy idea” that the real work of the Lark is accomplished.

Over the summer, I read John Carey’s book What Good Are the Arts? This book, by a noted English cultural critic, stirred up significant controversy when it was published in 2005. After the book came out, Carey noted that its most contentious passage was his definition of a work of art as “anything that anyone has ever considered a work of art, though it may be a work of art for only that one person.” He elaborated further, “The reasons for considering anything a work of art will be as various as the variety of human beings.” The difficulty, as Carey sees it, is “to find convincing arguments with which to oppose someone whose idea of a work of art differs from your own.”

It is Lark’s job to make space for madmen and madwomen who push to open up the boundaries of our world and make room for change that is needed. The change for which we prepare will be the outcome of our investment in individuals, their idiosyncratic voices, and a community that is nimble enough to amplify their creative visions in life as well as art.