On The Road From Me To We

by August Schulenburg

in Fall Forum

Post image for On The Road From Me To We

(Pictured: Douglas B Wilson, Kevin Moore, Teresa Eyring. Photo: Kitty Suen)
Our Fall Forum on Governance this past weekend focused on Changing Lives: both the startling cultural shifts of our Viral Age, and theatre’s continued capacity to impact lives and communities. In the panel Changing Lives On A Global Scale, Brown Paper Studios founder’ Judyie Al-Bilali brought up the southern African philosophy of Ubuntu, which she translated as “I Am Because We Are”.  This resonated with cultural anthropologist Robbie Blinkoff’s claim we’re moving from a Me to We economy, and together, these ideas served as touchstones for the entire Forum.

We began with Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Douglas B. Wilson’s moving keynote address.  He reminded us that only 1% of America’s population currently serves in war zones, and that experience can make them feel profoundly separate from the other 99%.  Theatre can be a tool to reintegrate veterans and military families into their communities, and to that end, Wilson called on theatre leaders present to participate in the program Me and a Friend. This program allows children of military families to go call a hotline and ask “What do you have for me and a friend?”, and receive two free tickets to cultural and sporting events.

The following morning, theatre’s power to reintegrate communities was seconded by Al-Bilali’s call for Ubuntu. Her work bringing South African children separated by years of apartheid together through play was a powerful example that “we must find unity in diversity – the place it can happen is arts and education.” That engagement with the ‘other’ is powerful because “through engaging with the other, we reach a bigger part of our self.” In other words – I Am Because We Are.

That philosophy found an unexpected home in the otherwise more practical presentation from William Baldwin’s on Economic Survival and Sustainable Yield. Baldwin gave practical (and witty) advice on how clever endowment management can encourage smarter charitable giving. Then the Goodman’s Roche Schulfer shared his company’s practice of inviting financial advisers to speak to interested audience members at the theatre; thereby giving the advisers access to potential clients, the audience access to financial advice, and the theatre access to more informed potential donors. It turns out the community-building power of theatre has financially practical applications, too!

Money was also on the mind of cultural anthropologist Robbie Blinkoff, but his spirited presentation focused on our culture’s rejection of Homo Economicus, and transition from a Me to We economy. Revising his thoughts from the National Conference, Blinkoff sees the political movements of the turbulent midterm elections as further evidence of a return to valuing social currency over money. To highlight positive examples of this,  he announced the launch of his blog, The Wild Pig Tale Project, and invited theatres to share their own stories of our hopeful return to the social local.

We then split into three breakout sessions, and as I was feeling the We in Me, I observed the panel What Do We Know About Audiences? Moderated by TRG’s Rick Lester, the speakers offered examples of how to take the Ubuntu principle into practice. While the NEA’s Sarah Sullivan gave us a sober reminder of the challenges implicit in the 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, she also provided a nuanced perspective of its silver linings. While the audience for theatre may be in decline, those engaging with the arts solely through online means remain a great untapped opportunity. This demographic is not only younger and more diverse than theatre’s traditional audience, but once converted, those who engage with electronic media are 2.8 times more likely to attend performing arts, and attend more frequently.

But as Lester reminded us, the problem is not necessarily finding new audience members, but getting first timers to return.  Terrence McFarland offered a  strategic ally to that goal in the Arts & Culture Census, an LA based collaborative research project analyzing the cultural attendance of 1.1 million patrons. The Census now allows for extremely specific analysis of attendance patterns, from neighborhood to nationwide, revealing where audiences overlap, and creating the opportunities for targeted marketing and smarter cross-org collaborations.

The Intrinsic Impact study, led by Brad Erickson, goes even deeper, proposing to measure the alleged transformational impact of theatre by actually asking audiences how (or if) they were changed.  After the play is over, theatre goers are asked about the play’s impact through the following measures: Captivation, Emotional Resonance, Intellectual Stimulation, Aesthetic Enrichment,  and Social Bridging. This will not only allow the field to move from quantifying theatre’s impact solely in financial terms, but allow theatres to sound their true impact on their communities. A play that didn’t sell as well may have had a measurably deeper impact on the audience, allowing the conversation to go beyond mere seat counts. With all these efforts, a much clearer picture of the We in American theatre is beginning to emerge.

Of course, knowing is only half the battle, and the exhausted arts administrator rarely has time to look at this bigger picture. The Banishing Burnout panel featured New Repertory Theatre’s Kate Warner moderating, with
panelists Barry Grove of Manhattan Theatre Club, Dawn Helsing Wolters of Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, Hetal Patel of Brava Theater Center, and David Schmitz of Steppenwolf Theatre Company all wrestling with how to survive crisis mode when it becomes the new normal. Wouldn’t you know, the principles of Ubuntu prevailed, with organizations successfully navigating crisis only by bringing their board, staff, and audiences fully into the process of change. And it was especially heartening to hear that the most powerful rallying tool in crisis was a successful production. As David credited Martha Lavey with saying, “burn out isn’t about time on the clock, it’s about feeling distance from the core values.”

The primacy of core values and artistic excellence was embodied the next morning in the persons of Diane Paulus of the A.R.T. and Bill Rauch of Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Both took over institutions with significant legacies, and rather than force their own values upon the institution, they reinvigorated it by going back to it’s mission. The A.R.T. vows to expand the boundaries of theatre, and Paulus has certainly done so, using the unconventional staging of shows like The Donkey Show, Sleep No More, and Cabaret to find out what happens “when theatre doesn’t have seats”.

The audiences followed this adventurous programming in droves, prompting Rauch to remind us that “we’re sometimes afraid of audiences in really destructive ways.” It was only after Rauch opened up the programming of OSF’s outdoor Greenshow to riskier performers that it became a magnetic center of the community; and it was only after bringing an actor who was deaf onto the stage and into the fabric of the company that deaf audiences really began to show. In fact, during financial trouble, a few forward thinking board members created an artistic risk fund so OSF would not have to diminish their creative daring; the money has not been touched, because all of the risks have paid for themselves in increased attendance.

The power of Paulus’ and Rauch’s visions was a perfect precursor for the final presentation, Mark Lipton’s Blown Sideways with a Vision.  Lipton was a vision skeptic until his research revealed that companies with a strong sense of vision were twice as profitable. This led him to investigate the mechanics of vision, where he found that a vision must contain three things:  the raison d’etre (why it exists), a high level strategy, and strong values. Lipton believes a good vision should live ten years out, and may not even be quite achievable. Vision guided companies succeed because “as human beings we are desperate to belong to a company whose vision speaks to our own hopes.” Which sounds something like finding the Me in We, and so our Fall Forum ended where it began.

However, as Junebug Productions’ John O’Neal said, “If there is sin, it lives in the distance between what you say and what you actually do.” He went on to remember “in 1962, I said the non-violent movement in the South was the most important thing; but there I was heading north to NYC instead, and that had to change.”

So as we leave the Forum and return to the daily challenges of making theatre, underneath our faith in theatre’s gift to inspire the “I Am Because We Are” is the distance between what we say and what we actually do. Will we move from a Me to We economy? Will social currency become more important than what you own? Will theatres become homes for military families and all those who feel like exiles in their own community? Or will Ubuntu not translate into action?