|FROM TC: The following is an excerpt from a longer essay. Please click on the title below to read it in its entirety.|
Commentary: Truthiness in the Politics of Theater
Polly Carl, HowlRound.com, 9/9/12
The other day I found myself on the phone with a reporter of a major newspaper. He was trying to tell the truth about a big theater that isn't telling the truth. I heard myself say to the reporter, who was so frustrated by the lack of transparency in the nonprofit theater: "It's weird right? Getting anyone to go on record in our profession to tell the truth is like trying to crack a CIA security code." A few days later, I watched Paul Ryan [at] the Republican National Convention, and [even] Fox News reported, "Ryan's speech was an apparent attempt to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech." When Fox is reporting that the Republicans are lying, one has to wonder if lying is even an offense worth calling out.
I thought when this moment came, when we finally acknowledged at the level of public discourse that all stories are in some part a lie, I would feel relief. The very acknowledgment that truth is something to be contested, is something I have argued in my intellectual and creative life forever: defining truth is a form of power, not a form of reportage. All to say, that I'm not that shocked by all the lying at the level of politics, the stakes are high and power grabs at any cost de rigueur. And I would argue along with The New York Times blogger and philosopher Jason Stanley that our enthusiastic and unapologetic embrace of the lie at the level of politics has reached an all-time high (or low). And when Stanley asks, "Is it possible that we are all culprits perpetuating this culture of "truthiness" on the political stage?" I wonder to what degree the American nonprofit theater is embracing this cultural moment of profound murkiness around the truth in ways that may come back to bite us later on.
In a field based on telling stories and embracing lies for the sake of greater truths, is straightforward communication in the American theater something we should strive for? Are we comfortable that the marketing and communication departments of our LORT theaters are as versed in "spin" as the communication departments of the White House? Do we use lies in our profession for the sake of a greater good, or rather to make ourselves seem like the political and corporate cultures whose definitions of success we are embracing unapologetically. Should our artistic institutions simply function as a mirror to the larger culture and its practices, or is the purpose of the nonprofit to shape and suggest and argue for competing values-to perpetuate the idea that the purpose of art is to push us toward a better country and a better world?
If we function with the same definitions of success as the corporate sector and spin truth using the same marketing techniques, then Mitt Romney's assertion that the arts need to "stand on their own" without government funding will be an easy sell to the general public. Why should we get special dispensation if we're not functioning any differently than for profit businesses?
How we define success and the means we employ to achieve it, is reflected in the stories we tell about ourselves. And let me state for the record that I'm no poster child of honesty. I traffic in hyperbole, in part because I'm an enthusiastic person and in part because a little hyperbole always makes for a better story. Exaggeration or perhaps just overemphasis can be a staple at holiday dinners with my family, none of whom have the least idea what I do, or know anything about theater. To make myself seem more impressive, I talk about the famous actors I've met or worked with as though that's all I do. These exaggerations seem harmless unless I decide to run for political office, but what I find interesting about my own truthiness problem is that it perpetuates some notion of what success looks like. If I say I produced or dramaturged a show that eventually went to Broadway, I legitimize myself and my work in a way that my family can brag about to other relatives.
Theaters have marched down a similar path in their efforts to make themselves seem relevant and to traffic in culturally identifiable definitions of success (like a marathon time of under three hours). Those of us who have worked with corporate board members, learn to spin our success in very particular ways, ways that mesh neatly with the "for-profit" values system where success is defined in economic terms -- ticket sales, grants awarded, big donations secured -- and in public affirmation -- Tony nominations and good press, for example.
Three Examples of Truthiness
- Recently I learned of a theater that was forced to lay off a number of employees due to a severe fiscal crisis. The following week the theater sent a note to the board of directors talking about the success of ticket sales for the latest production, and the layoffs were never mentioned.
- A playwright applies with two separate theaters to the same granting organization for funding from the same program but doesn't tell either theater she's doing so. Both theaters' applications are jeopardized as a result.
- Though nonprofit trustees must not benefit financially, board members of theaters regularly invest in commercial productions that have their "try out" in a theater on whose board they sit.
I can't even begin to give examples of the truth-telling problem we have when we talk about the lack of diversity in our institutions and on our stages. That is its own article.
These truthiness examples are complicated and we can weave them into many patterns. It's easy to see how a field filled with excellent producers and storytellers can produce truths that perpetuate cultural norms for defining success. But committing to honesty, to the values and ethics that originally motivated us to make a life in the arts and eschew more culturally acceptable means to success and wealth, must become the touchstone of nonprofit theaters and the artists who give it life.
In a response to a blog post about public funding for the arts, David Dower locates what he calls "the value proposition and the responsibility of nonprofit status" by restating a piece of Zelda Fichandler's testimony to congress for why it made sense to think of theaters like churches and libraries and universities: "We made a choice to produce our plays, not to recoup an investment, but to recoup some corner of the universe for our understanding and enlargement." And when I think about all of the board meetings I've sat in, and when I think of the conversations I've had in artistic meetings with colleagues and arts administrators, I ask myself if our overemphasis on recouping an investment isn't a form of amnesia and a lie about the history that brings us all together.
The truth is something we weave together, but what kind of thread will we use? Who will purchase the cloth? Stitch the fabric together? For me the questions are never in the results, the tapestry might be beautiful but if the process of its making is dishonorable, I cannot love the art. If we hope to recover our memory about where we came from and what we set out to do together, we must refine the truths we produce as theater practitioners. We must move from producing convenient truths and mythologies about success and omission if we hope to recoup some corner of this country for our enlargement -- if we hope to create a country where the not-for-profit means something different, something of value, something our government and our patrons can embrace with love and honor.