FROM TC: Every now and again, I read an important commentary that is not easily condensed into one neat paragraph and deserves its own dedicated edition of You've Cott Mail. Below is an excerpt from a speech given by Todd London, artistic director of New Dramatists, at the NoPassport Conference in New York City on March 1, 2013. It's a long post, but I encourage you to click the title and read the whole thing on HowlRound.com when you have the time.
One for All and All for One and Every Man for Himself
by Todd London
I take my title today from that great triumvirate of American philosophers: Moe, Larry, and Curly, known in post-structuralist circles as Les Trois Stooges. With unerring precision they captured the complicated essence of American life -- and by extension American theatrical life -- in their expert revision of the motto of Alexandre Dumas' three Musketeers. Yes that's my subject, the one and the all, for each other and for themselves.
I've spent part of the past ten years revisiting, collecting, and editing the words of the American theater's fanatical founders -- in search of original language. Fanatics like the Group Theatre's Harold Clurman, for one, and Susan Glaspell of the Provincetown Players, W.E.B. Du Bois, Hallie Flanagan, Margo Jones, Zelda Fichandler, Luis Valdez, Charles Ludlam, Douglas Turner Ward, Herbert Blau -- they write in impassioned, heart-pumping phrases that help me get through the day by cutting through the accumulated noise of a half-century of institutional and professional cant. One phrase kept surfacing, as I prepared to write this. It's from Julian Beck, who, as you may know, back in 1947, founded, with his wife Judith Malina, the still-living Living Theatre. 1962. New York City. Beck writes to himself: "I do not like the Broadway theater, because it does not know how to say hello."
I want to know how to say hello. I want our artists to know. Specifically, I long for a language of individual distinction. Somewhere in the decline of critical attention, the rise of celebrity, and the homogenization of production, we've lost the knack for celebrating the specificities of talent. What makes one artist distinct from another? How do we make a theater, a world that gives the individual his or her fullest stature? According to Harold Clurman, who talked into being the seminal Group Theatre of the 1930s, it's only in the company of others that the individual can reach full flower. This is really what I want to address here: the individual and the group, the "I" and the "we" of the theater. How we fulfill ourselves. How we greet one another, treat one another. How hard it is to reconcile one and all.
The struggle to reconcile the ambitions of "I" and "we" has plagued the American theater for a hundred years. This tension between individual and group is, I believe, a defining challenge of our theater, probably our culture.
The fusion of individual talent and collective energy fuels great theater. It has always been so. The history of dramatic literature is inseparable from the history of the acting company: Shakespeare and the King's Men, the Troupe de Molière, Sheridan's Drury Lane, Chekhov and the Moscow Art Theatre, Brecht, Churchill, Walcott, Fugard -- and on and on -- fresh theatrical language forged where playwrights and players adventure together. Look at seminal twentieth-century directors and the case is just as clear -- Strehler, Mnouchkine, Brook, Littlewood, Barba, Suzuki, LeCompte -- all create in the context of company. New performance and methods of performance almost always rise from the individual and the group adventuring together.
The fusion of individual talent and collective energy fuels great theater. But still, in America, it's nearly impossible to sustain their communion. [N]ame one theater scenius that hasn't been battered by a) economics that lead underfunded individuals to more lucrative careers, b) a national character that values individual power over group connection, and c) the physics of centrifugal spread and entropy. Some groups dissolve, some morph and flourish, some keep on keeping on with what novelist Stanley Elkin brilliantly calls, "the persistence of the obsolete."
There are two ways to sustain a theater in the United States: the first way is to institutionalize, to establish an organization that is viewed as essential to the community or place in which it grows, and to maintain that entity, even beyond the career-span of the people who initially give it life. The second way to sustain a theater, the harder way, is to balance the evolving needs of the individual artist -- voice and ambition -- with the evolving group genius, to balance the needs of self-determination and those of the common good.
The story of our most recent theater-the past 30 years or so-is often told as a history of domination by institutional theaters. This critique has defined so many of us-myself included. But I'm here to tell you that this is not the story. I experienced an epiphany last summer, the sort I considered myself well past. I grew up in Chicago, before the Off-Loop theater boom there, and have stayed fixated, with a kind of exile's fascination, on that city's theatrical doings. Last summer. [I was] asked to review a book entitled Beyond Steppenwolf: Chicago's Established Alternative Theaters. I was skeptical.
C'mon, I scoffed, beyond Steppenwolf are Steppenwolf wannabes. If these oxymoronic, so-called "established alternatives" exist, why don't I, Todd London, of all outside experts, know more about them? I was skeptical and then I was surprised. I read about theaters 25 years old, riding the line between amateur and pro, working with incestuous, fluid, conscientiously collective structures unimaginable in more institutional contexts, experimental in aesthetic and interactivity. Here it was, before my very eyes for a quarter of a century and unseen in the shadow of all the fine mainstream and ensemble strivers who emulated Steppenwolf. Here it was before my eyes -- an unseen scenius.
I could click my way through a collection of similarly aged, similarly spirited companies in the Bay Area, in the Twin Cities, in Austin. What about Washington? Boston? Seattle? Atlanta? Iowa City? Baltimore, Louisville? What is happening and either not seen or not collected together and, so, seen whole? Even in New York City, where I live. Established and alternative. It wasn't just an epiphany; it was a geography, a new map.
I know it seems like I'm talking about proliferation -- and to an extent I am -- but that's not the point. Yes, the undergrowth has become the field, but the transformation is deeper. The revolutionary change is one of process, how a whole generation of theaters -- many now in advanced stride -- have miraculously negotiated the hundred-year battle to reconcile individual and company. This is a fusion revolution: the making of companies that call forth the unique strengths of their members.
Of course, all theaters say they value collaboration, transparency, inclusion, respect and excellence. Yes, we are all good people; we've all gone into the theater for the best of reasons; none of us is getting rich. But no, not all practices are built on these foundations. Jobbing in artists, short rehearsals, top-down administration, black history month diversity, chatting with a guest artist on the first day of rehearsal and again at the cast party, choosing the project or playwright the Times singled out last season -- these are not the same as putting our methodology where our mouth is, believing that the way we work, the structures we create, the means to fulfilling our missions are as value laden, as important, as artistic, as what lands on our stages.
The pursuit of quality theater is not, in and of itself, the pursuit of a better world. The way we make work is not merely as important as what we make. It is what we make. You can see it -- with individual artists, as in the work of the vital companies populating our current seen/unseen landscape.
Where will our Messiahs come from? Who will they be? The student studying you from the back of the classroom? The intern answering your phones? The playwright who can't yet find the sound of her own voice and, so, has began to perform her own work; the performer has just begun to write? Your old friends? You? How will they gather? How will they practice what they preach? How will they revitalize the old and reveal the new? Where are they now? Look around.