Post image for Considering Imagination

(This post is a part of the Artistic Innovation blog salon curated by Caridad Svich for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas).

The performance will demonstrate the quality of the time we spend together.  – Paul Margrave

As a member of a community that makes, sells, sees, and administrates theater, I’m curious about the quality of time we are spending together.  Of course each project, institution, and collaborator is different and our experiences vary radically.  Yet I do I feel I can safely make some generalizations about ourselves as field, and one of them pertains to our relationship to innovation.  Here it is, and it will be no surprise to anyone:  We value it.  We are pushed, and push ourselves, to innovate. Do something new.  Put a new spin on things.  Solve a problem or situation in a new way.  Being derivative is anathema. Innovate! Be original!

Caridad asked us to consider innovation, and I’d like to do so by questioning the love affair we have with innovation.  Not because I don’t believe innovation is important, because I do.  I question it because I’m not sure it has a solid foundation. I am concerned that the American Theater requires itself to be innovative without successfully supporting and nurturing its own imagination.  A few years ago I encountered a book called Imagination First, co-authored by Scott Noppe-Brandon (the former executive director of the Lincoln Center Institute). It points out that in our society “(t)he general assumption is that the will to act must precede imagination—that you decide to do something before you imagine what it is.  The reality is that imagination comes first… Until and unless we have the emotional and intellectual capacity to conceive of what does not exist, there is nothing towards which we are to direct our will and our resources” (San Francisco, Wiley and Sons, 2009; p8). 

I believe that we, as theater makers and theater workers, know intuitively that we must “imagine first.” We know that our creative process must begin with time to dream deeply, to get to know our inner voice, to listen for our impulses and urges, and to imagine and experiment with their possible forms— all this before the practical innovation, the actual making, can begin. But is the culture of American theater set up for that?  As an artist or arts administrator, do you feel like there is, in the field as a whole or within your own particular institution or collaborations, time for your imagination to live? Is there room for it to grow? To find itself? To be expressed?

Is finding the time and space to imagine first a value that we share? Based in the many conversations I’ve had over the years with colleagues about our shared desire for more time and space to dream and to experiment, I’d say it is.  Yet these same conversations indicate that while it’s a value we share, it’s not a value that we as a field are successful at prioritizing. I think there is often a block when it comes to prioritizing the cultivation of the imagination of theater artists.  Not in our desire to do so, but in our effectiveness at ensuring that it happens.  And if there is indeed this schism between what we value and what we make a habit of giving ourselves, the first step in figuring out how to close that gap is to recognize that it’s there.

It is spring, 2006. I am subletting on the Upper West Side, in NYC to work on a new play with my collaborator Lisa D’Amour.  It is morning, and I’m drinking my coffee, turning on my computer to read how it’s going for my friends and colleagues at Humana.  I go to the NY Times website, find Isherwood’s festival wrap-up, and read this: There’s not much point in aiming high if you can’t hit your target. And is it really necessary for playwrights to dream up new worlds? (April 5, 2006)

Now, I know this is 7 year old news.  I turn back to it now only because it is an important example of our predicament, which shows up here as a kind of blindness towards the value of the theater artist’s imagination. Over the years, Isherwood has consistently expressed his position on new writing, favoring work that hones more closely to realism over that which experiments with form or content.  A concern I have for our field is the way in which this opinion has impact not only on the kind of work that is being produced and supported by our major theaters, but also on the quality of time we are spending together as a community.  I feel that it squelches our impulse to turn towards each other for imagination, experimentation, and innovation—and influences us instead to do our creative work within the safer bounds what is tested and known to succeed (at least in the eyes of the New York Times). A Times review has long mattered disproportionately in our field—a bad review can both hurt a show and handicap a career. But as arts desks continue to get cut from news organizations around the country and the national critical discourse shrinks, the views expressed in the NY Times take on even more power. Because the NY Times remains the main arbiter for taste in our field, the mindset it represents becomes embedded in the national system that is evaluating our work.  This evaluation teaches and influences audiences, administrators, and artists what our work should be—if we want it to be commercially viable.

To return to his quote above, I recognize that Isherwood might simply be trying to say there is mystery worth exploring in normal day-to-day life… and I do agree with him about that.  But he is also making a significant condemnation of our writers’ love affair with innovation, seemingly because he felt that we, as a field, were failing at it. This I don’t agree with. The assertion that we shouldn’t bother to imagine if it leads to failed innovation is both a stupid and dangerous stance—not just to our art form, but to our country as a whole.  It is so obviously stupid and dangerous, one can’t help but wonder how this blindness took hold? How did it manage to make it into the newspaper that is most influential to our field?

When I dig down just a little to explore the origins of this blindness, it quickly becomes impossible to extricate the field of American Theater from the field of American socio-economic values. Our blindness as a field has its roots in the national context of supply and demand in which our work takes part.  We feel it daily: in order to do our work, we have to sell it; in order to sell it, we have to fit it into the packages that the buyer wants. So the pressure is great to conform to the demand—or at least to what we perceive the demand to be (a perception significantly tempered by reviews).

To be overly simplistic, in our system the focus is on the market—on objects that can be sold.  So, as artists, we have gotten used to thinking that our value is attached to our objects:  our plays, either as scripts or as productions. That is our capital. That is how we participate in this free market system.  We could think of Isherwood-the-critic as merely a representative of our capitalist system who encourages the American Theater to think of ourselves as a big department store selling productions.  And as our business coach, he only wants us to succeed.  He only wants us to make sure our products are competitive enough to win the contest of getting people to buy tickets to see it. He only wants us not to put our works on the rack unless we’re sure of their success.  Unfortunately, in our market economy, that often means pushing out a product that attempts to stand out by being innovative, while sacrificing the quality of our experience making that product.  In fact, Isherwood’s commentary reveals himself less as the origin of our field’s block against prioritizing imagination, and more as a victim himself: of a blindness caused by the capitalist system in which we all take part.

I was fortunate enough to be at a NET Microfest with Michael Rhode earlier this year, and heard him express his views on the market value of the artist.  Michael’s argument is that our capital as artists is not our product but our process.  I will put a finer point on it and say it is our imagination.  That is how we serve the world—by building a close relationship with our imaginations, by learning how to be in relationship to it, converse with it, articulate it, share it.  We use it to see possibilities and make new paths.  We use it to make new connections—which sometimes lead to wonderful aesthetic moments, other times to new integrations of art and social justice, other times to transformative experiences between artists and their communities.  I’m not interested in ignoring to the system we are in—capitalist, materialist— but I’m very interested in a perception shift that will allow us to place proper value on our imaginations, and close the gap between what we know and what we do.

One way to achieve this perception shift is to move towards a view often expressed by Erik Ehn in the classes he teaches at Brown University: that we think of our performance as the accident of our rehearsal.  To say “the performance is the accident of my rehearsal” requires that we believe that the process of imagining is actually more important that the success of the innovation.  This is not the same thing as letting go of rigor and aesthetic standards.  It is rather a re-focusing of values towards the process of making rather than towards a guarantee of product; it is allows for an intentionality to  that process, recognizing that if care is put into the making, the resulting product will “accidently” reflect that care.

Another way I have found to achieve the perception shift is to move the center of my art making away from New York and out of the regional theater matrix.  There are many environments where imagination is both valued and supported—  my long-time creative home of Austin is the example I know best, and I feel it also in cities like New Orleans and Minneapolis. These towns have become known as “centers for new work,” and while it is clear that they are communities where the imagination and experimentation is both prioritized and preferred, it would take another essay to satisfactorily examine the reasons why they have become that (though some good starting points might be the tenor of the local critical discourse, and the relative impossibility of supporting oneself in these smaller cities as a theater maker).

Finally, Erik Ehn also frequently says “how we make something is what we mean.” My understanding of his comment is that the way you get to something reveals its truest meaning. If you design a beautiful building but have it built with slave labor, it’s an ugly building.  If your family is nice and polite at the dinner table but you beat them to get them to be that way, you don’t have a successful family.  So my last query is this: if a product, a play, successfully sells but was developed in paucity and rehearsed on a constricted schedule with a stressed out, over-worked, under-paid creative team and administrative staff, can we really consider ourselves to be successful?  Can we really consider it to be a successful play?

The performance demonstrates the quality of time we spend together. More obviously, the time we spend together demonstrates the quality of the performance. Whichever direction it goes, I am looking for a quality of performance and a quality of life, both; I am looking to increase the likelihood of having better accidents by paying more attention to my rehearsals… whether that’s actual production rehearsals, or creative development time, or conversations with strangers, or the way I am with others within our field:  listening to, nurturing, and fostering each other’s growth. Ultimately, I dream that we can feel the American Theater around us and among us less as a store selling productions and more as an invitation to artists, administrators, and audiences to build a closer, more rigorous relationship with our own imaginations.

Katie Pearl is co-Artistic Director of PearlDamour, an OBIE Award-winning multidisciplinary performance making company she shares with Lisa D’Amour. Katie also makes alternative, often site-specific performance and develops new works for theater with artists around the U.S. As PearlDamour, Katie is a MAP and Creative Capital funded artist, and received the 2012 Lee Reynolds Award from the League of Professional Theater Women, given annually to a woman whose work for, in, about, or through the medium of theatre has helped to illuminate the possibilities for social, cultural, or political change. Katie is a member of SDC, a fellow of the Drama League, and is currently pursuing an MFA in Writing for Performance at Brown University.