To start, a little story: a few weeks back, I had a date. (Well, a second date, really, but that's not really important.) The woman I was out with studies psychology, so she's not really in the arts community. She knew I write plays, though and, since it was the second date, we were going to talk about more substantive things. Things were going pretty okay, but then she asked me a question that honestly stumped me. I was going on about community-based theatre making and how important it is, as is my want, and she said, "But...well...you're saying that the theatre should be drawn out of the community, but isn't the point of art to bring something new to the community?" And, honestly, I was stopped in my tracks. I hadn't really looked at it from that perspective before. Good question. Too bad there was no third date. But I move on. To this.
The comments thread there is really and truly amazing. Despite Scott's complaints, there are very few ad hominem attacks or knee-jerk responses. It's like a good graduate seminar (if there is such a thing.) And I'm very glad to get to know Paul Rekk's writing. Very good stuff all the way around. It's dense and long and there's Latin, Nazis and such (of course), but it's worth reading through it.
For my part, I think it connects to the question my date asked me. That question really stuck with me and, in some way, turned my thinking around a bit. Not that I don't believe in community-based theatre anymore, but that my thinking about it has changed somewhat. There's a big question that figures into both her question and the discussion at Scott's: what is the role of the artist in society? And I think that question figures into a lot of the struggles of artists and arts organizations right now. Because there are very different camps and we're having trouble reconciling them.
Is the artist a truth-teller first? Or an advocate? Is the role of the artist to affect change in the society or simply reflect it? Does the artist owe the audience any allegiance? We all have our own answers for those questions and some are mutually exclusive. In my reading of Scott's post and his comments, he thinks of the artist as an agent of change and that connection to the community is the best way to do that. Paul and Matt seem more in the camp of artist as truth-teller and that requires some distance from the community because some truths are uncomfortable.
Answering that question, what do you think the role of the artist is, is one of the most important things a young artist can do, and I don't think we do enough talking about that in our colleges and grad programs. I don't think there's any one answer, but it's something an artist should know about him or herself. Your work will flow out of that, your life choices will be dictated by that. Like the old dead white guy says, "Know thyself." We focus so much on finding the personal truth and being honest with ourselves, but this is an essential part of your life as an artist and it's worth taking some time to think about it.
The problem, though, that we hit in arts advocacy is that everyone seems to see their answer as the right one. And all others as the wrong one. This zero-sum game plays over and over and usually boils down to "What I do is art/theatre. What you do is...something else." How do you really advocate for everything if you think some is selling out, some is dance-theatre, some is boring propoganda? It's a hard line and the major organizations wind up blowing with the winds of popularity a bit. If we can accept a multitude of answers and places for those answers, we might be able to actually pull together more.
For myself...I'm coming from a place of artist as truth-teller. First and foremost. Both personally and professionally. I go with Lester Bangs' advice to the kid in Almost Famous: "Be honest and unmerciful." For me, that doesn't mean being cruel or simply destructive, but sometimes offending is the way to honesty. You can't take it off the table. And sometimes to be truly honest, you have to be separate from the community. You're going to bring them things that they don't want to hear. People don't often respond well to things they don't want to hear.
I really like Scott and I like his ideas, but sometimes they strike me as just ideas and not quite part of the real world. In the real world, if you're a community-based artist, your connection to your community is your lifeline. If you piss people off, you can easily find yourself cut off. And then what are you? Another story: I used to blog, under my real name, on a neighborhood blog here in New York. For a variety of reasons, I'm a bit of a fixture here in my neighborhood and work with some community organizations. I spend a lot of tim hanging out here, especially at one local pub. It's an old Irish pub in a neighborhood that has quite a bit of friction between the old Irish residents and the new residents, many of whom are Latino. As an old Irish bar, it's not often frequented by the Latino residents. Not through any official policy, just...habit. Comfort level, whatever. It's a pretty white bar on most nights. I still love it and on the blog, I wrote a lot about it. I was there on Election Night and I wrote about that, noting that, when I walked in, I was only one of two black people there. I also wrote about how much I loved the bar and how it was where I wanted to be for the election. A few weeks later, the manager buttonholed me and was quite angry that I'd written that there were so few black people in his bar. He works hard to make it a comfortable place for all and he felt I had undercut him. That relationship, while it's still ongoing, isn't the same. And I stopped wanting to write so much about how I felt on the blog. Not just because I ran the risk of hurting people I liked, but, really because I ran the risk of damaging relationships I needed for my other work.
When the artist is beholden to the community in this way, a kind of censorship will inevitably creep in. It's benign in some cases, active in others, but it's there. If you're in a nearly all-white community, and you're dedicated to telling their stories, does that mean your community doesn't need In The Continuum? Are all stories in all communities? Do you talk about the lack of minority voices? And what if it's a purposeful lack? And if you do offend people, what if they don't come back? I think this is the slippery slope that a lot of regional theatres slide down. You start off doing a certain kind of work, but find that, as you push the truth or bring the community stories they don't want to hear, they turn their back on you.
I don't know if all of us can be those artists who tell those stories. We have to have many mansions and let artists find their way. If it's their way to offer hope, fine. But if it's their way to offer disdain, let them. It's all theatre and it can find a place.
One sidenote, and forgive me if I get testy about this, but can we put a stop to having MLK stand in for the entirety of the civil rights movement? Seriously, there were lots and lots of people involved from all points of the spectrum. Aren't Malcolm X and Angela Davis and Bobby Seale part of the movement? Just throwing MLK out there as the paragon of social change is kind of insulting, frankly. Especially since he was reviled when he was doing that work that we rever now and he was shot to death for telling the world things it actually didn't want to hear. Yes, the movement, in the end, had some successes, but it does all of the people involved a disservice to attribute that success to just one man and the way we interpret his methods and goals. All of them, up to and including Al Sharpton, used every tool they had to acheive change and it took all of them. Try to remember that. Plus it gets on my nerves. We make theatre, some of us hope to make some change. But, really? We're not leading a movement. Okay. Rant over.