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Our upcoming Fall Forum is focused on change: not just the shocks of the Great Recession and the shifts of the Viral Age, but the positive change the arts continue to make possible.  One of our speakers, Robbie Blinkoff, is an ideal candidate to frame this change through a wider cultural angle. As an ethnographer and anthropologist at Context-Based Research Group, Blinkoff recently completed a report called “Grounding the American Dream: A Cultural Study on the Future of Consumerism in a Changing Economy.”

This is not the first time Blinkoff has engaged with a TCG audience – he participated in the Morning Manifestos at the 2010 TCG National Conference. The video of his talk is now available on our website, and is a must-see; both for his insight into changing  consumer behavior and the pointed question and answer session that followed.

His talk emerged from an interest in combining “anthropology and the arts as a better way to communicate insight about our society.” According to Blinkoff, that society is “on the cusp of something amazing”, shifting from people  “measuring the value of their days in how much they got done” to wondering if  “the greatest invention in the world was not the wheel but music.”

Before the Great Recession “our cultural EKG (was) the Dow”;  now Blinkoff claims “we learned that you can’t shop your way to enlightenment.” When, in his 2008-09 study, multiple interviewees said “the American dream has died”, Blinkoff realized a major cultural  rite of passage was at work. This wasn’t just a smarter version of the American consumer, but the end of Homo Economicus; the painful transformation of identity  from “what I buy makes me who I am” to “what can I get from being a we instead of being a me.”

America’s ‘Once In A Lifetime’ moment goes beyond realizing “we’ve got too much stuff” to understanding we’ve “allowed the marketplace to become our culture.” According to Blinkoff, the 80-90% increase in yard sales in 2009  was about more than throwing away too much stuff; “what they’re really getting rid of is what it represented.”

And what is taking the place of all of this stuff? Ukuleles and joy. Blinkoff shared the video of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain teaching an audience how to play Beethoven’s famous melody on the uke, an example of the kinds of communal rites of passage happening in the shadow of the recession.

Citing an October 2009  study that found 43%  of responders saying the recession “had a positive impact on their life because they were moving into a new identity”; Blinkoff believes we are moving from a culture driven by the “abatement of fear” to the creation of joy.

“How do people make joy?” He shared his multi-year experience in Papa New Guinea, noting “the organization of that society is counter to ours, it’s not based on individuality, and it’s not based on private property: the arguement in our society right now is about the natural right of private property. It’s not a natural right. We’ve constructed that notion. The only thing natural in the world – the secret to life – is being social.”

So where do theatre makers come in? “The end of this right of passage is building the sense of social and putting those things first…and theatre in general, is a really, really powerful place to assist that process.”

Moderator Eric Booth added a story about an inititial meeting for a festival dedicated to bringing Latin American theatre companies to New York City. As the various producers and artists sat around the table, a producer began by saying “the key question for this meeting is, what is it that we in the New York Metroploitan area need to learn from Latin America? And the very first sentence that was said was, we can teach you how to live for joy. And it was like the meeting was over.”

Are we in the midst of such a joyful transformation, or merely on a detour in our national quest for more stuff? Blinkoff admits, “nothing’s certain except right now.” But right now is right where theatre lives, and the sales of ukuleles are up.

It’s not too late to join us us at our Fall Forum for another go around with Robbie Blinkoff and the rest of our amazing speakers: click here to learn more.

Let us know what you think in the comments: are we in the middle of cultural shift towards communal joy, or merely on a detour from our endless pursuit of stuff? And what role can theatre play along the way?