Saturn and the Arts: A Challenge


Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of having lunch in Bakersville’s popular diner Helen’s with a dynamic young director who sought me out to talk about some of the things I have written here and elsewhere. He was intelligent, articulate, and clearly well-read, and as we talked, he spoke passionately about his desire to do plays that would speak to small communities. Ironically, he was on a short vacation before heading off to do a freelance gig in another state, where he had been hired to do a contemporary play telling the oft-told story of an upper-middle-class NYC family. He wondered aloud about what relevance that play had for the people who lived in the place where he was going, and he regretted the fact that he would not be there long enough to actually attempt to engage the community in a discussion of the issues raised in the play. He was just a hired gun brought in to get the play on its feet and then move on, and he had taken the gig because he was in the early part of his career and needed to take any paying opportunity that came along.

The Dreaded Question

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As we started lunch, I asked what he wanted to talk about, although I knew what was coming, and he told me of his desire to put down roots in a community and spend his life creating art for and with his neighbors. I nodded, and braced myself. He looked at me with an expression that combined bewilderment and hope, and he said, “But I don’t know how it can be done. Maybe you…” His voice trailed off, although his eyes stayed locked on mine. “Maybe you…have some ideas about how to do it.”

My mind raced, trying to locate every idea I had developed, every glimmer I had tended, every wild hare I had chased that could possibly be offered in response to his plaintive question. But in that moment — in that moment when I had to admit that I mainly knew the way it couldn’t be done, and only had an inkling of how to even start figuring out how to do it; in that moment when I had to say that I primarily knew why it was important that it be done, why it was crucial to the future of theatre as an art form and the creative life of American society — in that moment, I suddenly remembered what had originally motivated me. It wasn’t my goal to start an arts organization myself, I don’t consider myself an Artist, and the joy I have in creation is not centered in production but in education and service. My reason for starting the Center for Rural Arts Development and Leadership Education (CRADLE), my reason starting my Creative Insubordination website, my reason for creating courses for my students at UNC Asheville was simply this: to give young people a chance to lead a creative life wherever they want to make it. To bring the arts back home.

Back when I wrote on my blog Theatre Ideas about my frustration with the centralization of the theatre in “NYLACHI” (New York / Los Angeles / Chicago), so many thought that my anger was a rejection of the art and artists found in those cities, when what I was really writing about was the way such centralization reduced the options for young creative people. The NYLACHI narrative implied that “real” artists could only exist in those places, and all theatre training was designed to teach the skills needed only for those places. I thought young creative people should be free to make their lives and contribute their talents wherever they felt was home; I thought they should be taught the history of current and past theatres in a multiplicity of places, and they should learn the possibilities such places held; I thought they should have an opportunity to learn the very-different skills and values needed to become part of such communities. When I invented CRADLE, I did so as sort of a reverse-Sinatra hit: if I could figure out how others could make it in small communities, then they could make it anywhere! The need to create an approach to the arts that would be sustainable in a community that had fewer than 10,000 people, as opposed to many millions in the major urban areas, called forth all of my creative powers in mining the neglected histories of small town theatres, and in adapting the ideas of other disciplines to contemporary arts economics.

Goya, Saturn Devouring One of His Children
Goya, Saturn Devouring One of His Children

And here, sitting in front of me eating a cheeseburger, was my reason for continuing to struggle with these questions.

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The American theatre, like American society in general, is Saturnalian — it eats its young. We make a Big Deal about young people, but in reality we create structures that ensure that the talents of the vast majority will go wasted and unused. While I don’t know this for certain, I suspect that people under forty make up the vast majority of the 58% of Actors Equity members who didn’t make a dime in the theatre last year.

How can this possibly be good for the art form? How can this possibly be good for the country?

Doing Everything Backwards

If Holly Sidford’s 2012 report Fusing Arts, Culture, and Social Responsibility did only one thing, it made clear how backwards nonprofit arts funding is. According to Sidford, 55% of the foundation money that goes to the arts goes to the 2% of arts organizations with the biggest budgets. These institutions, of course, have been around for decades, growing ever larger as they age. And the institutions are not the only thing aged, many of the most highly paid leaders of these institutions are long in the tooth as well. Meanwhile, new theatres led by young artists are self-funded and struggle for attention and for a foothold.

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By contrast, look at the world of business. The leaders of venture capital firms aren’t plowing their money into General Electric, General Motors, and General Mills, they are investing in young entrepreneurs with creative ideas and the passion to see them through. That is where the breakthroughs are, that is where the ideas that disrupt markets live, that is where revolutions are made. Venture capitalists don’t meet with young entrepreneurs and tell them to get back to them when they’ve been around for several years and have already brought to market a couple successful products. Venture capitalists provide the money young entrepreneurs need to develop their ideas and bring them to market. Venture capitalists want to be in on the ground floor. Most of their money is lost — the ventures fail, the ideas don’t appeal to the market, the technology never quite works. But occasionally something really important happens.

Guthrie Theatre
Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, MN

Not so in the theatre. Most foundations won’t even look at a new company until they “have a track record,” until they can prove that there is no risk in giving them a few measly dollars. Rather, these foundations funnel their money to the arts equivalents of General Electric, General Motors, and General Mills: the Guthrie, the Kennedy Center, the Arena Stage, Goodman, Steppenwolf. And the result is our moribund theatre scene — disconnected, unimaginative, irrelevant, bloated.

Invest in the Future

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This is a challenge I extend to US foundations who give money to the nonprofit arts scene: stop investing in the past, and instead invest in the future. Behave like venture capitalists and encourage the creative new ideas coming from young, energetic artists all across America. Back daring ideas whose success would disrupt the status quo, would spread creativity into every community in America.

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Take a chance at changing the world.

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This doesn’t have to be done abruptly — notify the 2% that this change is coming so they can plan their budgets accordingly. Then seek out young artists who have an idea that tries something new, that seeks to disrupt the status quo, that tries to make a dent in the artistic universe. Ignore the young people who simply want to recreate the same stuff being done by the 2% — we don’t need more 6-play seasons mixing safe classics and middle-brow suburban two-handers. We need people trying new forms, telling new stories in new places to new people. Communicate this venture to the universities, so they have a reason to change they way they do things. Try this experiment for a set number of years, and at the end of those years, evaluate the results: how have these new ventures changed the way things are done? How have they created new options for young artists and for communities everywhere? How have they enriched society?

And Then, Pull the Plug

Give these ventures a limited time to figure out how to be self-sustaining. Part of their charge must be to create an approach and develop an audience — to scale, to use the entrepreneurial term — to the point where they no longer rely on unearned income to make ends meet. Make that understanding clear from the outset: it isn’t enough to just create art, it has to be created in a way that isn’t a burden on society. In fact, write it into the award that once they are on their feet they will be expected to tithe back to your foundation a set percentage of their income in perpetuity. This is the Return on Investment for your foundation, a way of paying forward the help received to the next generation of young artists. Rinse and repeat.

This is what I would do with CRADLE if I had funds available. So that the next time a young, talented, passionate, articulate young artist tracks me down and asks “how can it be done,” I’ll have an answer for him or her. I’ll have a program that helps them create a plan, and venture capital to allow them to devote themselves full time to its realization. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll help a few young people to lead a creative life wherever they want to make it.

In the meantime, if you know somebody who has some money, and who you think would be interested, I know a few young people who could change the world.