I’ve just come from Washington D.C. where I have seen the most wonderful and encouraging display of humanity. At least two million people converging on a town to give a benediction to a man they have empowered to re-claim what they hold to be sacred and indelible in this country. Millions converged on a town from all over the U.S. demanding change, peacefully, giving the man they hope to be the facilitator of this change a glorious welcome. On my way to the airport this morning I heard that not one arrest had been made. The city has over two million visitors and not one arrest.
Yesterday gave me great hope for this country, and I was very glad that my children, who have vivid memories of terror etched in their brains, could now add this to their consciousness, this positivity, this hope, this monumental moment. I now know that they will hold beautiful images of vast stretches of citizens gathered with tremendous hearts and resolute souls, chanting, singing and dancing, as far as the eye could see, humanity united in hope and possibility. I know this will cleanse some of the fear that has been encouraged in their consciousness over the past 7 years. I know that they will remember what they witnessed on the mall in Washington D.C. yesterday for their entire lives and I know now that today they believe anything is possible.
I was thinking a lot about community yesterday. Yesterday two million people had a common experience, a shared experience on that mall, on the streets of D.C. All across America, people gathered with friends and family at home, in bars and restaurants, forming bonds with the people they watched this historic event with. Community was created in the collective witnessing of a moment. The shared experience somehow makes the moment more significant, more palpable, and more lasting. For the rest of your lives you will remember where you were yesterday and what you were doing, and whom you were with. That is essentially what we aspire to when we create theater. A lasting shared experience, an ephemeral community that will be remembered. Now of course it we rarely have two million people assembled for one of our plays, make that never, but a guy can dream.
Theater began, as we know it in the west with the Greeks. The theaters were considered to be sacred places and the stories told in these temples were of God and man and the struggle and conflicts of existence. The outdoor ampi-theaters could hold hundreds and the theatrical event often lasted the entire day and night. I know some of you have been to plays that seemed like they lasted that long but I am here to talk about the idea of a more vital theater, a theater that respects and involves its audiences, that approaches the event of theater with deep respect for the power of the form, a form started thousands of years ago as a spiritual ritual.
What is community? Let’s assume that for this moment in this room we will create a communal experience and let’s say that that will for this moment create a community. If we accept that to be true then my computer dictionary needs an added definition. Community is defined in my little computer dictionary as 1. ‘A group of people who live in the same area, or the area in which they live.’ That’s not us. I live far from here. 2. ‘A group of people with a common background or with shared interests within society.’ I don’t think that’s us. The most vital audiences are diversified. It’s better to have people with different interests. 3. ‘A group of nations with a common history or common economic or political interests.’ No. We are not nations. 4. ‘The public or society in general.’ Not us. We are specific. 5, ‘All the plants and animals that live in the same area and interact with one another.’ Now some of you may have smoked a plant and some of you act like animals…but we need a new definition.
Let’s create an image of community now in this room. You have to participate. My first experience of theater was watching my Dad perform on stage. Dad was a folk musician and the moment I remember most vividly, as a five year old was when his group involved the audience in song. It was a time honored tradition in folk music. The great American folk singer Pete Seeger would travel the country with his banjo and sing songs like this one.
Sings: “Oh Mary Don’t you weep.”
He would then ask that the audience join along….
Theater, by its nature is unique and in many ways, like music is more relevant in its community when it involves it’s audience. Unlike folk music we don’t ask that you join in but instead we in the Actor’s Gang approach the form with the knowledge that theater doesn’t work if we pretend the audience isn’t there. They are there and their energy and involvement is essential to whether the experience has any visceral power. And a key to the presence and involvement of the audience is whether the story we are telling is resonating with them. Does the story reflect their lives, their fears, their passions?
There are some people that view entertainment as a distraction, an inconsequential pastiche, a place to have a good laugh or to go on a thrill ride. Theaters all over the country devote themselves for the most part to this concept of entertainment, fearing failure or economic ruin should they stray too far away from this commercial model. People that run these theaters justify their artistic decisions on their responsibility to survive as an entity, drifting farther and farther away from what some of them once held to be the essence of theater, its social importance. This too often leads to a resentment of the muse, if not an outright disdain for socially oriented art which is viewed as unrealistic or naïve or didactic. And so we have seasons dedicated to musical revivals and benign comedies, and an occasional tepid Shakespeare. And the community collected around this meeting place, this theater is robbed of something essential. They may be amused, or entertained, and they may leave the theater sated, an ice cream sundae of entertainment in their bellies, but too often the delightful treat of the night before will be forgotten by the morning.
Now I enjoy an ice cream sundae once and awhile. And certainly when times are tough and the pressures of life surround you what you really need when you go to the theater is a good laugh. But a theater has to be more than that. We have to aspire to tell stories that make you feel something the day after you were laughing in the theater.
This leads us to an important question. What is the responsibility of the artist? Is it enough to just wiggle around and be cute and charming? If they laugh and enjoy your wiggling cuteness isn’t that enough? Haven’t you provided a valuable service to your audience, allowing them a couple of hours of wiggles, smiles?
One question I’m often asked is, “Why do you feel it is necessary to merge art and social issues?” My answer is that I don’t feel it is necessary to merge art and social issues. I just haven’t figured out how art can exist that doesn’t in some way acknowledge the world that surrounds it.”
The Actors Gang has been involved with two recent projects that we hope fulfill just that, that have re-energizing our mission as a theater company now in its 28th year. In the past three years we have toured to over forty of the United States and to four continents with our stage adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984. Wherever we have performed we have had spirited discussions on Orwell’s allegory of a prolonged war with an unseen enemy, the importance of civil liberties and the danger of governments that rule from a base of fear. We were as proud to have that discussion in China as we were in Salt Lake City, Utah as we will be after the performances this weekend.
The other project we are very excited about is a stage adaptation of “Dead Man Walking” Sister Helen Prejeans groundbreaking book on the death penalty. For the past four years we have offered rights to the play to universities throughout the world. The theater departments can only acquire the rights to perform the play if they can convince two other departments in the university to offer courses on the death penalty. So far in over 140 universities, courses have been taught in law departments, sociology, philosophy and theology departments, performances have been given and symposiums of scholars, lawyers and justices have gathered to debate this important issue.
There are some that view art as inconsequential, as unimportant. Our public schools see art and music programs as the first victims of budget cuts. As artists struggle for survival, inevitably they ask themselves the question, “How much will I compromise?” “What do I have to do to survive?” “Maybe now is not the time to produce that experimental, political play” In a nutshell, “Can I afford to continue to think about art as an agent for social change?” I would suggest to all of you, to quote the campaign slogan of one of our most reviled politicians: “Now More Than Ever.” Now when it is essential. Now when the important questions must be asked. Now when our hearts need to be moved. Art is essential in moments of transformation and change. In fact I don’t know if change is possible without art. Art is essential in moments of poverty. It can be a lifeline for the desperate, the despondent. It can be the only way to tell the truth in difficult times.
I have always been inspired by artists that lived courageously in the worlds they inhabited. Bertolt Brecht, John Lennon, Phil Ochs, Sam Fuller, the Living Theater, Hal Ashby, Robert Altman, the Angels of Light, some names you know, others that have faded from memory. All of these artists challenged the world around them. All of them reached the hearts of people and reinvented the worlds they inhabited. And all of them paid for their individuality and courage.
The power and influence of artists is profound and significant. Musicians, filmmakers, theater artists, painters all have it in their grasp to deeply influence the way their audiences perceive reality and engage in the world. And there are those in this world, often in positions of power, that deeply resent the affect the artist can have and the amount of people the artist can reach and influence. Some of those people jail their artists, others encourage their foot soldiers to boycott or intimidate their artists into silence. And too often that terrible enemy of freedom, self censorship rears its ugly head and leads artists in free societies into compliance, safety, small fortunes and inevitable mediocrity. This is why it is important to keep socially engaged work alive, art that can be nurtured and continue to grow instead of serving a solely commercial function. That kind of art matters. It matters profoundly and is essential to our survival.
In 1937, Pablo Picasso, responding to a request from the democratically elected government of Spain created a work for the International World’s Fair to show solidarity with his besieged government that was being attacked by fascist movements from within and their friends in Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. The piece he created documented an assault by Nazi war planes on the Basque village of Guernica in Northern Spain in which over 1,600 people were killed in the worlds first sustained aerial bombardment of a civilian population. A reproduction of this disturbing and extraordinary work of art hangs in permanent display at the United Nations, just down the street. In early 2003 as the drumbeats of war were in the air, Colin Powell came to the UN to persuade the world that a war with Iraq was necessary. He was to address the press in the room that housed the Guernica reproduction. Preparations were made and a huge blue curtain was placed in front of Picasso’s mural. As artist Mark Vollen observed: “The censoring of Picasso’s mural is illustration of arts immense power. It is a civilizing force that erases national boundaries and strengthens human solidarity. In particular Picasso’s masterwork continues to aim a laser beam focus on the madness and inhumanity of war, a message that transcends the barbarity suffered by a small Basque village in 1937. As Picasso himself once said, “ Art is a lie that tells the truth” It is an indication of the lasting power of truth and the lasting power of art that the architects of this war, the masters of obfuscation and deception and disinformation saw Guernica as such a threat to their agenda, such an affront to their latent consciences that they could not stand in front of Picasso and lie.
This is the potential power that artists possess. I imagine as long as art, or theater, or storytelling has existed there have been two schools of thought on what matters in creative expression. But the question is, can you do a comedy without tragedy lying right beneath it? Can you do a tragedy that gets laughs? In tribal cultures there are shamans and there are clowns, in Balinese theater the same, in all forms of theater from the Greeks to commedia del arte, to Shakespeare, the art of conjuring involves both disciplines. They are intrinsically connected. The fools in Shakespeare propel the tragedy of the kings, the harlequino in commedia transcends the oppression of his master Pantalone, the Greek chorus comments on the human condition and the tragic mistakes of the powerful. Even the tribal clown, a coyote, say, served a function that was beyond merely getting you to laugh. All of these characters were reflections of the community they played to. The Harlequino, the fool and the tribal clown were the community’s entrance into the world of the rich, the powerful and the almighty. They were in their portrayals, mirrors of the common experience, the common person. And the common person in these stories were given a voice, and that voice, whether the coyote, the harlequino, the Greek chorus or the fool, spoke truth to power. And in speaking truth to power the chorus admonishes the gods, the fool makes a fool of the king, the harlequino becomes the pantalone, the coyote becomes the shaman, the slave becomes the master. Imagine the reaction of the audiences as they watched these stories being told. This is beyond entertainment; this isn’t idle pastiche or simple comedy. These stories weren’t distractions. They were stories that involved the community that watched them in themes that were relevant to their lives, that dealt with issues of power, of class, of faith, of injustice. Stories that informed, inspired, disturbed, and in many cases, transformed. I would propose to you that this remains the function of theater; a vital meeting place where a community gathers to address its fears, call on its gods, slay its demons and dance with its future. When you invest this importance and relevance in theaters mission, you are also investing increased importance in the conjurers of the theaters stories. There is a great power to the actor. A great actor can create an intense personal, emotional connection with his or her gathered community. A connection that can exist for a lifetime. Antonin Artaud in The Theater and its Double talks about an actors aim as the transformation of the soul, to transform not just the physicality, or the voice, but the entire being. Artaud reminds us that the power of an actor to do that, to transform himself was once considered so threatening that the Church would not allow actors in their congregations. Think about that. The social order regarded actors as a threat. This wasn’t long ago. In the Broadway district in New York there is a church that in the thirties became the Actor’s church opening its doors to artists in a departure from church doctrine. This barring of actors from worship didn’t have anything to do with loose morals. It had to do with the effectiveness and power of the transformed actor to communicate with his or her community. : Communion. There is great power in this bond. It is why the more repressive a society is the more dangerous it is to tell the truth with theater, with music, with art, the more fundamentalist a mindset, the less tolerance for art. It is why there has been a systemic effort made in the last 20 years to marginalize and immediately attack any actor, musician or artist that tries to use their access to their community to spread information ignored by the status quo. The strategy has been so effective that you have an entire generation of actors that have accepted their neutering, that wouldn’t dream of thinking of themselves as possessing any power, that bristle at the idea of actors as anything more than well paid pretenders. This is not the fool in Shakespeare or the Harlequino, this is the fattening, well trained eunuch that makes his masters laugh or cry and is well compensated for it. Once in a while the eunuch will pretend to be a leader in its community by emerging from its hutch and saying something radical like “Vote” or “Be tolerant”
What concerns me more than the celebrity eunuch is that it seems that for young artists the dream, the aspiration for success has little to do with art or community and everything to do with wealth and self. I would like to hold onto the notion that art should be separate from commerce for the young. When I was starting out we had a fear of the corruption of commerce on art. Yes, it would be nice to get a television commercial to pay the rent but it would be whorish to do that if you are famous. Now, it isn’t selling out, it’s self promotion. Having your rock song played underneath a commercial selling chewing gum is good for record sales. Young famous actors consider it a level of status, an honor to do a Gap ad. And some young actors view the theater as a means to an end, something they will do until they grasp the golden ring of fame and success in Hollywood. I’m here to warn those of you that are dreaming of this world as a profession. Until you understand the importance of community and the connection between community and your own aspirations you will be headed down a difficult road with many obstacles and heartbreak.
There are so many challenges facing theaters today. Due to recent economic troubles non profits are fighting for survival across the country. At times like these it is important for cultural organizations to survive. But I would propose that their survival is intrinsically connected to how effectively they have created communion with their audiences. It is my belief that a living, vital, relevant theater must provide more for its community than the moments of transformation on its stage. It must first make sure that everyone in its community has access to it. Regardless of the economy and because of the economy it has become essential that cultural organizations provide affordable ways to see theater, music or view art. It is precisely moments like this that culture becomes essential. Our theaters should be open to all, particularly someone who is down on their luck. Beyond finding ways to open their doors to all I believe the theater should exist outside its walls. It is essential for artists to reach out to the community, finding ways to use their talent to benefit others. This is essential not only because it benefits the community but also because it benefits the artist. I have found that the more generous an artist is, the richer their work becomes…. the more they get away from self indulgence and selfishness, the more they grow as people and as artists. There is a direct connection between generosity and growth in an artist. At the Actor’s Gang we have found the more we work with and give to our community, the richer and stronger we become with our work and as an organization. When you approach your work with reverence for its importance to the community, and its relevance to the lives of your audience members you have invested in your work something that reaches back to the roots of theater. The stage is not just a place for idle distractions, it can be a sacred space, a place of dreams, a place that can transform lives, that can liberate and exhilarate, a place that can move hearts and free souls. There is so much power and importance in the live experience of theater. People who don’t know each well will sit in a darkened room and be transformed together. They will go on a journey together. And at the end of the journey if we have risen to the challenge of creating something relevant, something that reflects on their lives, then the journey continues. The story enters into their lives. They talk about the journey with others in the audience. They find a common ground with others or they find a common disagreement. Some love it, some hate it but the important thing is that there is communication within the community. They understand each other better through their common experience. This is the magic of theater. Why it is relevant. And why it will last.