Who’s it for? Making art in times of crisis
By Megan Paradis Hanley
“When I stopped worrying about what New York could do for me, and started thinking about what New York needed… that’s when the art got good.” – Taylor Mac
Way back in September, I was supposed to post about Syndicated, our company’s first-ever festival of new plays by women, queer, trans, and nonbinary artists. But the weeks and months since Syndicated hit me hard, and I can only assume they may have shaken you as well, what with the everyday abuses of power from the current administration. I’ve felt lost at sea, heartbroken. Scared.
How could I write about theater as if it offers any sort of balm in such a racist, transphobic, misogynist, violent country?
On the other hand, don’t we need a massive culture shift right now, and shouldn’t the theater I make be part of that?
I don’t think it’s working, says the blank screen in front of me.
For I grapple with the fear that to be a theater artist is to be an egocentric. Egocentrics assume that the world reflects them and their beliefs. They are focused on the self (this is a less judgy way of saying “they’re self-centered”). When talking about space, egocentrics locate their own bodies at the center of the universe. Egocentric directionality assumes that space shifts as you do: one says, “Turn left,” giving directions from the point of view of your own body.
I’m not trying to say that self-centeredness is always bad. Community organizers recognize that to effectively build power, they need diverse groups of people to recognize the ways that their rights are inextricably linked to everyone else’s. Organizing around mutual interest — not “I have no skin in this game,” or “I’m here to serve/save you,” but “We are truly in this one together,” — is powerful.
On the other side of the spectrum, allocentrics are community-minded rather than self-focused. They think in the “we” instead of the “I.” And when giving directions, an allocentric assumes that space exists outside of any one body. So an allocentric person might say to a lost tourist, “Head west,” instead of “Turn left.”
After ten years making theater in NYC and around the Americas, I haven’t run into a lot of incentives to be a truly allocentric artist. Radical, community-minded artists tend to get pushed to the fringes of funding streams and into offstage roles. Thank the gods for these humans– for all the amazing company managers and producers and arts administrators and educators and designers and all-around visionaries who make amazing shit happen with or without anyone’s permission. But even with these theater heroes, we’re still in an egocentric mess. We have an industry that is only now, slowly, starting to own up to how deeply white supremacy is embedded into our work. Some funders are working to create incentives to increase diversity in our industry. But at the same time, I worry that many theater companies are thinking about “diversity and inclusion” in superficial terms, without really asking, “How will our work move towards racial justice?”
Recently, I attended a fundraiser for an arts organization that I really care about and of which I am a member. It’s a great event every year—relaxed, friendly, a networking opportunity that’s actually fun. But this year, one of the event’s speakers said something that gave me pause. She shared that, in these dark times, theater is social change, and social change is theater. The room applauded— most of us a few beers in, exhausted from the political violence of the past few months, and a little damp from the cold rain falling outside. I think that many of us needed to hear some optimism that night. I did.
But listen, my loves: as far as I could tell, the room was mostly full of white people, myself included. And as I looked around that room, I felt deeply that if we white folks just keep making space for our own bodies and stories onstage, then our work isn’t part of a movement towards social change. Instead, it’s just re-enforcing the status quo.
Many of us live under the mistaken belief that if only everyone knew how bad (x issue) is, then the world would be a better place. It’s simply not true. Knowing is only the first step; we need to move from knowledge to action. I heard this misperception all the time when I was an activist trainer with the Yes Men. “What’s your goal?,” I’d ask, “Who are you trying to reach, and what do you want them to do?” Many newcomers to activism would reply, “We want to reach everyone! And we want them to know how MESSED UP this is!” I’d smile, nod, and say, “And then what do you need them to do?”
“And then what?” might be a particularly good question for artists to ask when we’re making work that intends to own up to its own politics. (If you don’t think your art has a politic, then it’s probably safe to say you can stop reading this blog post, though I’m impressed you got this far.) Artists tend to be good at solving problems on the fly and addressing questions horizontally, within a team. We’re excellent story-tellers who know how to make the invisible visible. And many of us have a healthy disrespect for authority. With all these strengths to contribute to a healthy political discussion, I want to see more artists joining existent movement work rather than launching our own, somewhat egocentric projects. (Btw, here’s a helpful quiz that some friends made a few years ago that can help you find an organization near you whose mission aligns with your priorities. It hasn’t been updated in a while, but it’s still a great starting place.)
In the meantime, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I, as a white and cis artist, should do at this moment in history. Should I stop putting myself onstage? Maybe. I know plenty of incredible artists of color, fat artists, disabled artists, elder artists, Native American artists, trans artists, whose work I could produce instead of my own. Actually, should we just put a moratorium on all white, cis art for the next 25 years, see how we’re doing by 2043, and then reevaluate? Wouldn’t that be interesting?
Then I had the chance to see Taylor Mac’s Holiday Sauce this week. Taylor shared that judy makes art not to honor the Creator, but to celebrate the creative act. Judy’s talking about worshipping radical faerie realness ritual rather than a Christian God, but I think it’s true for other kinds of creators as well. For me, the egocentric artist isn’t what I’m interested in: what I care about is making space for creative thought in dark times. I don’t want to advocate for less creativity, I realized. Oh, shit. I have to rewrite my stupid blog again. I’ve set up this entire argument based on the premise that you can EITHER be egocentric OR allocentric. You can either care about your own (possibly privileged) artwork, or you can invest in your community. But I’m pretty sure my thinking was wrong. It was scarcity-based thinking. Maybe you can do both.
Because whether you’re thinking “Turn left at the corner,” or “Head west until you reach the river,” both directions can and do co-exist. You can turn left, and you can also turn west, simultaneously. Both ways of thinking should get you to your destination. That said, if you’re only ever thinking like an egocentric, it might be useful to recognize that there are other ways to think– other directions you could explore. And this is true for an allocentric as well.
So a more interesting question to ask myself might be: “What’s the greatest number of other people that my work could benefit, beyond myself?” And I’m challenging myself, and you, dear reader, to spend some real time exploring this question. Let yourself think creatively. To dig deeper, you might also ask:
- Who does this production benefit most?
- Who gets paid?
- Whose leadership is our company building?
- What resources do I have for this work– and could I share them?
- What am I asking my audience to do after they see my work?
- How will we measure if we succeeded?
- Who is holding me accountable?
We’ve been struggling with these questions for the past few years in The Syndicate, and we’re still very much in the thick of it. But, we also decided that it was time to start testing out new producing models, rather than just talking about it. So we began from the belief that when our company receives institutional support, part of the reason we have that access is because of our relationship to power and privilege(s), as white people, as mostly cis folks, as people who could get college educations (with varying amounts of student loans). So, whenever we get an institutional opportunity, we’re trying to figure out how we can share it with other artists. Instead of thinking about our art-making in the context of scarcity, we try to see it as an opportunity for abundance.
Our residency at IRT this summer was a big, egocentric opportunity for us, but we also wanted to make it an allocentric community event. So with First Read, on which co-artistic director Ellenor Riley-Condit was lead producer, we offered space and producing support to three trans or gender-nonconforming playwrights and produced a readings series that centered queer, trans, and non-binary artistic teams. We set aside one weekend of our four-week residency at IRT for First Read. It was a blast, featuring the work of Azure D. Osborne-Lee, Nelle Tankus, Hal Cosentino, and 35 incredible collaborators. And while including the weekend of readings added time and money to our production budget (it was important to us that everyone got paid), it also deeply enriched the residency, helped us meet dozens of new artists who we want to work with again, introduced our company to folks who might never have attended a Syndicate show otherwise, and helped three creative teams move three beautiful new projects from the idea phase to a performance-ready script. First Read was a tiny drop in the bucket of the struggle for racial, economic, and gender justice. But it did what we hoped it would; it was a tangible action that a company of our size could take; and we’ll do it again in 2019.
On that note, happy end-of-2018, and onwards to a more just 2019—may we create it together and individually, and fix the mistakes, and create it again, and keep creating it until we pass it on to the next generation of creators.
… Oh, and this is terribly egocentric, but we live in capitalism, so: In 2019, the Syndicate will be working through some of these questions and then producing more plays that center women, queer, and trans artists. If you’d like to include us in any end-of-year giving, you can do so here. And, thanks for reading.