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Occupy Theater

by Jeffrey Carpenter

Theater is a social art form. One simply cannot do it alone. What may begin with a solitary artist, the playwright, quickly gathers into a mad throng of producers, directors, designers, actors, stage crew, and musicians; and the entire enterprise is ultimately dependent on a room full of spectators. From board recruitment to staff retention, artist development to audience development, strategic planning to strategic partnerships – it’s all civic engagement, and the success of any non-profit theater is directly proportional to how effectively it engages its community. With the recent economic crisis governments have lower tax revenues, corporations have less to give in arts sponsorships, and foundation endowments have declined – and grant dollars with them. With these conditions, a theater’s success depends more than ever on direct community support.

Herein lies the measure of a theater’s relevance as it looks to the future, as well as the seeds of its ultimate salvation or destruction.

“A theater’s success depends more than ever on direct community support.” Volksbühne in Berlin (Photo: Jeffrey Carpenter)

A reversal is taking place on the fringes of today’s pop culture: an aesthetic that counters the relentlessness of hyper-capitalist production and its incessant demand for positive engagement. From street art to electronica, these trends are mirrored in current protest movements from Occupy to Anonymous. People are taking to the streets to be seen and heard, formulating an unsettling response to a confusing situation: engagement that calls for nothing in particular and thus poses what is perhaps the most radical challenge to the current social order. Conversely, regional theater in America is stuck in a holding pattern out on the margins, becoming more and more homogenized. Built from the same mold, we’ve created a systemic model that recycles the same plays and playwrights, depriving us of the artistic dexterity that enables us to meet the times in which we live. There is a disproportionate ratio of playwrights to production opportunities, and not unlike the challenges facing local government, the costs and bureaucracy associated with union productions and performers keeps exploration and risk at bay.

Ideally, of course, our job as artists is to create art, not maintain a subscriber base. For my taste, the most potent theater is inextricably tied to the risk of self-revelation – a willingness to explore the unknown where essence struggles for understanding, where form emerges out of chaos. Something truly learned must be earned, and when that dares to happen on stage, (or in a park, van, street corner, bar) we are riveted. It’s alive. And it’s infectious. That’s why an art formula equals death. Once the unknown is known, pathways trodden, audience expectations set, infrastructures are fortified, and the willingness to risk recedes along with cognitive dissonance.

“Theater in Berlin is more central to the societal framework than it is here.” The home of Bertolt Brecht and Helene Weigel (Photo: Jeffrey Carpenter)

On a recent benchmarking trip to Germany, my wife and I visited Berlin. The city is a nexus: East vs. West, the battle waged, the victor decided. But what has emerged is not Communism of course, dead with the fall of the wall, and not the west we know – but a new something. A rare hybrid: a temporary balance of the two extremes giving way to a kind of collective autonomy. The result is a cultural zeitgeist unlike any other city in the world. This phenomenon instantly compelled us to see our own culture with fresh eyes and in great contrast. The German artists whom we met possess a self-assurance that is very rare in America. Here, I suppose, we’re too busy fighting to justify our existence, “positioning” our art, so that it can stand up in the heavy traffic of corporate America and sustain itself.

Theater in Berlin is more central to the societal framework than it is here. Its functionality is built-in. Good or bad, it serves a purpose, and people “get it”. Every performance we attended was absolutely packed. The theaters, lobbies, cafés – absolutely mobbed with young people, old people, women in fur coats, roughnecks with piercings and tattoos. It is truly a public forum. The model itself is vastly different. They operate in a “rep” system. You could go to the same theater five nights a week, and you would see something different every night (and you could almost actually afford to). Actors are in multiple productions at any given time, and a production can run for years. (We saw a production that had been in rotation for 11 years). Once created, it exists.  If it is good, it lasts. Here, unless in a commercial venue, you have a three-week run and it’s gone. We saw a Hamlet at the Schaubuhne (their avante-guarde theater and equivalent to Broadway). I’m convinced if produced here, half the audience would have walked out, but not there. Audiences there have a real appetite to be pushed to confront the stark human realities of life with art, where as here, more and more, it seems, we’d rather turn on cable to escape them.

“The most potent theater is inextricably tied to the risk of self-revelation.” A German amphitheater (Photo: Jeffrey Carpenter)

Of course one might argue they are much better funded than we are, that all their artistic bravado is only possible because of state funding. And it’s true. In America, the entire 2011 National Endowment for the Arts is $146 million and declining (; and for a great discussion of the declines, which are even bigger when you consider inflation click here). And that’s for our entire country. The city of Berlin alone has $915 million Euros!! for annual arts funding. No wonder they feel so self-assured. Though we did talk to directors there who said even their days are numbered, about how those streams of funding are finite and about what will happen when they’re driven further into the marketplace— for now, theirs is an artistic ecosystem teeming with diversity and innovation, unparalleled in our consumer-driven system.

I think it was the Dalai Lama who once said, describing the current state of humanity, that we are so anxious about the future that we cannot enjoy the present; the result being that we do not live in the present or the future. We live as if we deserve to live forever, and then we die having never really lived. This is an apt description of the current state of American theater. Of course there are notable exceptions, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, LAByrinth, Pig Iron, The Wooster Group, and a few particularly adventurous Regional theaters in a given year, but while they give hope, they remain anomalies.

So what do we do? How do we remain fresh and relevant, resist the well-paved path, connect with our times and pay our rent? The answer is: there is no right answer— and definitely no easy one. There is no one-size-fits-all. We must overhaul our way of thinking. Take nothing for granted. Dispel the myth of safety and security and create a space where failure is encouraged, and courage is rewarded. Dare to light the fuse. Break the rule. Leap before we look. Vow to always be beginning. Cultivate opportunities to connect and collaborate with unlikely partners. Break the chains of pattern and predictability. Transform the mundane into the sacred and vice versa. Innovate and energize and inspire. Build our “family” and create meaningful experiences that challenge and engage our audience in new ways. I believe this is the only approach (not our complaints) that will attract, grow and maintain a loyal and supportive community, helping us build new liaisons ultimately creating a healthier, stronger, more diverse and resilient artistic eco-system here in Pittsburgh and beyond for years to come.

But what do I know? What do you think?

“Theater is a social art form.” (Photo Courtesy of Bricolage)

Jeffrey Carpenter is a director, actor, and the Artistic Director of Bricolage, a theater company located in Pittsburgh.

For related articles from The Muse Dialogue:

Vol.1, No. 7: Public Performance Table of Contents

Flash Mobbing – Buskers with a Taste for Surprise

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