The Engine of Artistic Innovation

by Lojo Simon

in Artistry & Artistic Innovation,National Conference

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(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).

Before coming to theatre, I spent most of my writing career in journalism working as a reporter, editor, manager or owner of a small publishing company. The newspaper/magazine/publishing industry has undergone great change in the last 50 years, well before Woodward and Bernstein inspired me to find and write important stories that made a difference. First, of course, was the proliferation of television, which began to eat away at Americans’ dedication to radio and print publications as our most trusted information sources. But television was gnat-like compared to the behemoth that is the Internet, which birthed a revolutionary shift from the presentation of information by an educated few to a more expansive ability of the many to write and blog and post and share a vast diversity of ideas in a relatively egalitarian online format. And all the while this transition was and is still taking place, industry experts and institutions have been bemoaning the fall, or dare I say, death of journalism and publishing with great gnashing of teeth and newsprint.

Sure, technology has changed the field, some publications died, and journalism jobs (particular those that pay well) are scarce, especially in print media. But reading is on an upswing. Never mind the millions of people in the new Web-based audience, but the advent of Nooks and Kindles has made reading more popular than ever, particularly among people under 30 (the same people we want to attract to theatre). And oh, the people you meet now online who are contributing their two cents to the great information flow that is at all of our fingertips around the world. Change, yes. Death, yes, of sorts. But also, an explosion of innovation and interest in the written word. New voices. New opportunities for sharing and collaboration across borders of national identity, time, space and language.

Are we experiencing a similar seismic shift in theatre? Is the once educated, small old guard being usurped by a more diverse, more egalitarian mass of theatre-makers who are pressing against the walls of our great theatrical institutions, causing them to burst with new ways of thinking and creating art for the 21st century? Are old paradigms of making theatre with their emphasis on artistic directors being the arbiters of America’s theatrical taste and concomitant producers’ bottom-line thinking being shoved aside in favor of new expressions of theatre that defy simple definition – the kind that Howard Shalwitz described at the 2012 TCG conference that inspired this blog salon?

Convenings such as TCG National Conferences and From Scarcity to Abundance at Arena Stage and the evolution of new models of collaboration such as the National New Play Network appear to embrace a sea change in theatre caused by a shifting economy, advances in technology, and a maturation of the field here in America. Participants are encouraged to face the future with courage; yet in reality, scarcity mentality in too many institutions and individuals continues to drive decisions rooted in risk aversion and fear that people will lose their jobs and/or money and/or sense of power and control. But when change came to journalism, the world expanded for writers and publishers, and innovation flourished. Why can’t that happen in theatre, too?

Making theatre, we all know, is a collaboration of individuals who share a common vision to create art that is alive and transitory and that literally speaks to and moves its viewers and listeners, so it seems fair to ask you, as a participant in this collaboration: What fears and biases do you carry about the (r)evolution in theatre? How do you feel about change that is affecting your institution, your career, perhaps your ability to earn a living? Do you welcome it and the potential for innovation that it brings? Or do you feel some resistance because the democratization of theatre might alienate big donors, undermine a capital campaign, or even threaten your job?

Maybe you want to welcome change, but you are nevertheless afraid that you will fail in embracing it – that patrons won’t buy tickets, that critics will shame you, that your writing or designs or performance or productions will suck because you’re experimenting with new form or new content or a collaboration that for whatever reason simply doesn’t work? These are legitimate fears that drive us to remain insular and static.

As a writer, I live with fear of failure all the time, but I know that artistic innovation in my creative process often is the by-product of the ground shifting under me. Yes, it’s completely unsettling, and when I’m tired or hungry, I’d rather be eating popcorn and watching CSI: Whatever than typing one faltering word after the other in an attempt to birth a new play or an essay or a poem that takes me on a wild ride into my subconscious. But I’m committed to putting in the time at my computer and in the rehearsal room and collaborating with other artists because, as terrifying as I feel leaping into the unknown, finding the story and inventing an interesting and/or new way to tell it is THE thing that has always mattered to me.

Artistic innovation – be it personal or institutional – cannot exist if we let our fear of change or our fear of failure decimate our imaginations and squelch our willingness to take risks. Fear leads to a scarcity mentality – we become egotistical and selfish, we fight over limited resources – money, space, budgets, revenue – as if these mattered more than the limitless abundance of creativity and collaboration that drew us to making theatre in the first place. In a scarcity mode of thinking, we judge each other, we sort the “good” artists from the mediocre ones, we form dangerous alliances, we are stingy in giving the benefit of the doubt, we pick at each others’ scabs.

Scarcity mentality is deadly to innovation. Rather, artistic innovation needs an environment in which the spirit of generosity and the belief in abundance pervades our work. We must embrace the belief that many voices can make many contributions and welcome everyone to the table – and by that I mean not only diverse voices in terms of gender, ethnicity, language and culture, but also in terms of the geography and space and time. A theatre that limits its submissions to those that come only from agents or playwrights who meet strict criteria, or a new play development conference that invites the same well-known playwrights to the table year after year, or a literary department that is powerless to advocate for the best work regardless of the people or funding attached to it – all of these practices may be effective in minimizing costs and maximizing revenue, but the result is that they also exclude and marginalize and keep out or keep down the huge number of new and unknown artists who, if they were welcomed into the fold in some capacity, might contribute a surprising amount of time, energy, resources and innovation in support of theatre-making.

To overcoming fear and fostering a spirit of generosity, I’ll add a third component that I believe is necessary to artistic innovation and that I’ll call “labellessness.” By this, I mean an interdisciplinary, collaborative effort – a tearing down of silos and walls that define and isolate and pit us against one another. Non-profit vs. commercial. New York vs. regional. Professional vs. community/amateur vs. academic. Management vs. union. New plays vs. classics. Institutional vs. storefront. LGBTQ vs. straight. Playwrights of color vs. playwrights of so-called privilege? Do these divisions and labels lift us all up, or do they create an “us vs. them” mentality that discourages collaboration and community?

In my own work making theatre, I do many things: I write plays, I dramaturg, I read scripts, I write contracts, I teach, I buy tickets, I am part of an audience, I write marketing copy, I work with actors and directors and management, I reach out to other theatre-makers in search of connection and collaboration and opportunity. I embrace all of these roles, yet I want none of the labels that come with them. I work on the artistic staff of a theatre, but I am not the theatre. I have had some success as a writer, but I don’t want to be limited to expressing myself only with words. What we do in any particular time and place doesn’t define us, so why would we impose those kinds of labels – and thus expectations and biases – on each other?

I love that theatre brings together groups of people with diverse talents and helps us create what feels like family for four or six or eight weeks or more to create a work of art that is beautiful and moving and imaginative and then disappears. Artistic innovation depends on the same courage that we bring to first rehearsal, when we don’t know anyone and yet we are being asked to trust everyone in the room.

Lojo Simon uses her skills and talents in a variety of capacities to create theatre, some of which are shared on her website She works on the artistic staff of a regional theatre, but the views expressed in this essay have not been endorsed by that theatre and are completely her own.