Stability and Fluidity in Independent Theater


nickelympicsAs we get ready for the first annual LIT Fund Nickel-ympics this Saturday, I’m thinking back on the first two years of the Fund.

A central goal of mine over the past few years has been to foster professionalism and stability into the passionate and fluid community of the independent theater sector in this city. The trick is to professionalize and stabilize and actually increase the community’s fluidity and flexibility without dampening the passion or changing the essential character of the community.

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At the Fund (and with our sister organization, the League of Independent Theater) we’re focused on building responsible, professional, goals-oriented organizations that reward, value and strive for maximum flexibility, responsiveness and impact on the community they serve. This dynamic tension and potential tensile strength has a lot to do with the nature of the thing that unites us all: the primary love of and fascination with the theater. Think of all the careful, time-specific planning and preparation that goes into a good rehearsal process and production. And then remember the absolute necessity to forget everything and play and respond and listen and trust when you step onto the stage and to leap into it fresh and open every night. Both ways of thinking are required, never in opposition, one supporting the other to make a great show.

It’s easy to talk about an artist/businessperson divide, uptown vs.downtown. The downtown artist is assumed to be cool and raffish, the uptown businessperson is sharp and cold-hearted. These are, of course, stereotypes, reinforcing distrust and encouraging lazy thinking.

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari break this down better than anyone I know when they write about a series of different divides:


Arborescent (tree) vs.Rhizomatic (grass).
The Arborescent model is deeply ingrained in us. It’s the basis of logic and reason. There is a central thing (the trunk) there are things supporting it (roots), things branching off of it (branches) and it is one stable, solid and understandable thing. It does not change or become anything else; it follows a predetermined and natural course. It grows until it reaches its absolute height and then it falls down and new things grow out of it, unless it is knocked down or cut down before its prime. This is the essential model of a commercial theater production.

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Rhizomes are key to understanding a non-arborescent structure or way of working. It’s a weird word, but essentially, unlike a traditional hierarchical structure, rhizomes must constantly be produced and constructed, they are maps that are always detachable, connectable, reversible, modifiable and have multiple entryways and exits. Think of a website instead of a storefront, Wikipedia as opposed to the Oxford English Dictionary. Think of the New York Neo-FuturistsToo Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind.

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Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, c. 1980
Photo by Karl Flinker / via

Neurotic vs. Schizophrenic
This is big for D and G (Guattari trained as a psychoanalyst), and one of their central arguments is that Freud, while undoubtedly a staggering and original mind, was comically wrong about some basic things. Take away the unhealthy connotations of the words neurotic and schizophrenic and just think about the worldviews they describe.

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The neurotic worldview posits that there is one thing, one central obsession, one incident or moment (usually something that happened in childhood that we can’t recall without expert help) that explains everything and if we can recall it and face it, we will be healed, healthy and happy. The important thing here is that the neurotic understanding believes in the primacy of one central thing we are always circling back to, always approaching or avoiding.

The schizophrenic worldview is exactly the opposite. There are ten thousand things, all important, all equally valuable or worthless, all potential escapes or detours or dead-ends. We exist in a whirling, buzzing whirr and we can choose a path and walk it for a while and then step onto another one at any moment, if that new path seems to lead to where we want to go. There is no One Way, One Central Mystery, it’s all mystery and the keys to unlock any part of it are everywhere. You can see how this corresponds to the idea of the rhizome.

State vs. Nomad
Again, try to remove the positive or negative connotations from these words and think about the worldviews they express. “State” can mean a good thing like stability or a negative thing like unthinking control and “Nomad” can make you think of freedom or homelessness, but none of those things are essential to the division D and G are making.

The State worldview rests entirely on the zero sum game theory. If one player gets a point, that’s balanced by another player losing a point. The State understanding is territorial and proprietary.  The State has agreed upon and enforced laws, a working police force, defined and protected barriers and elected or otherwise selected leaders, most usually overseen and controlled by a central leader. It’s a stable and defined thing, like a tree, like the neurotic Holy Grail of the Oedipus Complex.

The Nomad understanding is one where the central value is movement. There is no concept of “property,” only tools and weapons and landscapes. It’s a positive sum game, it runs on trade and barter. Unlike the State, there is no surplus in the Nomad plane, although there can be severe scarcity. The values are flexibility, speed (not just swiftness but the ability to change the velocity of the organization at any time), constant adjustment in the face of new developments, a clear focus on what is actually in front of you at any given moment.

I’ve lived most of my life on the rhizomatic, schizophrenic and nomadic side of these divisions. Which helps to explain why I’ve been a part of a lot of great and crazy things, made a lot of friends and have been broke all my life. But I’m not advocating for either side.

The important thing to me is that we recognize our own internal impulses and allegiances to these worldviews, how we’re thinking arborescently, schizophrenically, neurotically or nomadically when we approach different challenges or opportunities. And also, it’s important to remember that none of these is absolute and no one is on one side exclusively. We’re all constantly moving between these poles.

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Here at the LIT Fund, we’re building a stable organization that supports a fluid community. And it’s working.

Come join us on Saturday and celebrate our first two years.

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