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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).

We may need a moratorium in the arts on the following words and phrases:

In grant writing and program notes, the phrase  “seeks to investigate….”; the word “community” (as applied to everything from a gang-ridden neighborhood to an aggregate of big business interests); the word “explore” where  “look into” would do just fine;

And yes, the word “innovation.”

The usage of innovation is starting to piss me off. Most often these days, innovation is a byword for unexamined market-driven expansion. Innovate! Be innovative. Please explain to us, in 33 characters or less, how your idea is innovative!

Why are we innovating precisely and for whom?  What do we mean when we say it and what’s good for humanity and other living organisms about it? Why do we do it? Why should we? What does the role of the artist ask us to do with innovation? In particular how do we fulfill the role of the theatre artist as storyteller, and the role of theatre itself as living conduit for inchoate ritual?

Innovation is more than an improvement or an invention. It is a renewal of purpose, a change; in art’s case: a transformative change that intuits, perhaps precipitates, and certainly shapes – a paradigmatic shift.

Here’s how innovation is touted in business and economic terms, in wikipedia  (uh, itself, I guess, an innovation on the encyclopedia):

“In society, innovation aids in comfort, convenience, and efficiency in everyday life. For instance, the benchmarks in railroad equipment and infrastructure added to greater safety, maintenance, speed, and weight capacity for passenger services. These innovations included wood to steel cars, iron to steel rails, stove-heated to steam-heated cars, gas lighting to electric lighting, diesel-powered to electric-diesel locomotives. By the mid-20th century, trains were making longer, faster, and more comfortable trips at lower costs for passengers. Other areas that add to everyday quality of life include: the innovations to the light bulb from incandescent to compact fluorescent then LED technologies which offer greater efficiency, durability and brightness; adoption of modems to cellular phones, paving the way to smart phones which supply the public with internet access any time or place; cathode-ray tube to flat-screen LCD televisions and others.”

“Innovation is the development of new customers value through solutions that meet new needs, or adding value to old customers by providing new ways of maximizing their current level of productivity. It is the catalyst to growth.”

I’m not arguing that there is something inherently pernicious about all this fabulous growth. However, I do question the notion that growth is uniformly desirable, not to mention sustainable.  As Jared Diamond notes in  “Collapse”, for almost every technological innovation in human history, there is a corresponding unforeseen consequence, often one worse than the problem the innovation sought to address. (If this reminds you of a bad experimental play, it should!)

In his book “What Technology Wants”, Kevin Kelly defines all art, social institutions, and intellectual creations, all culture as part of a “self-reinforcing system of creation.” He uses the term technium to identify all of this as tools human beings evolve to interpret and transform our reality. He then goes on to explain that this technium has a life of its own. That, much as we evolved from chimps, but are no longer chimps, the technium evolves from us but has its own biological intent.

Inventor, author and MIT wizard Ray Kurzweil, has charted this biological momentum mathematically. He notes that one can’t predict all the factors of how an organism will grow – the conditions are chaotic and random – however, one can predict with precision the rate of growth and the shape of that growth. That is almost always the same.  Our mechanistic and systemic technology, he has correctly predicted so far, is growing at an unprecedented, exponential rate.

By around 2045, he says “the pace of change will be so astonishingly quick that we won’t be able to keep up, unless we enhance our own intelligence by merging with the intelligent machines we are creating”.

In theatre now, what’s innovation? Is it to introduce new media? What about reducing media? In a culture of cyber-Faces, simulated sensory effects, corporate architecture that increasingly dominates collective space and the maximum availability of consumer-friendly brain candy, what constitutes true innovation? What about the media of masks, mimicry, minimal spectacle and maximal imagination? Is more aesthetic, technical, or even formal innovation what is needed to give us a spiritually audible experience of the reality we inhabit?

What can transform rather than transfix? Is it innovation of form, content or of purpose that is required of theatre now, at this present juncture in the human story?

I say we need to be careful lest we innovate mainly through gadgetry and ever-“plateau”ing platforms: careful that we don’t race artistically to keep up with the million-fold exponential growth, the inconceivable pace of technological evolution, while the human psyche advances by increments in slow and ancient cycles.

At the close of his turn-of-the-century masterpiece the “USA Trilogy”, John Dos Passos gives us the image of a young man walking along a highway in the Mid-west. A car passes, and above him flies a new jet airplane, casting a huge shadow over the landscape, its speed dwarfing the boy’s pace.

Perhaps the transformative power of theatre dwells in that vast chasm of time and space between the boy on the land – earth and us – and the plane in the sky – our ideas manifest. Is it possible that that the intelligent machine we need to build is a stage sacred enough to contain our primitive souls?

For my part, I’ve responded to the current received wisdom of the dwindling attention span by making a twelve-hour anti-soap opera about surviving in America on a planet on the edge of climate crisis. “As the Globe Warms” is not without gadgetry and new media  –  I use a camera and screen to depict web-cam life and the work itself, as well as being onstage, has online permutations in the form of audio and video novels.

But by upending readily consumable categories, I hope to contribute to a new paradigm of sustainable culture that I see rippling out in the arts and elsewhere. With a minimum of resources, without mass-culture/ high-culture approval, we can now send ripples from a backwater that can potentially spread out and join forces with other currents in the common cultural stream as never before. Why not take theatre, even as it is being made, directly to the heart of our subject matter – to the people in the trenches about whom we imagine dialogue and initiate actual conversations, no matter how uncomfortable?  I envision productions that can reflect this process: marrying bare bones, minimalist means to a maximal engagement of time, imagination and social inclusion, and articulate an ethos of sustainability, a “slow theatre” analogous to the slow food movement.

Imagine my pleasure in discovering that the great Australian art critic Robert Hughes had this idea too, way before I did:

“What we need more of is slow art: art that holds time as a vase holds water: art that grows out of modes of perception and whose skill and doggedness make you think and feel; art that isn’t merely sensational, that doesn’t get its message across in 10 seconds, that isn’t falsely iconic, that hooks onto something deep-running in our natures. In a word, art that is the very opposite of mass media. For no spiritually authentic art can beat mass media at their own game.”

Amen, brother.

Heather Woodbury is a playwright and performer known for solo and ensemble play cycles that combine the pulse of performance art with a novel’s scope. Her 6-night saga, As the Globe Warms, was named a Best Play of 2012 by the Austin Chronicle. Her 100-character solo play, What Ever toured extensively, from Steppenwolf to London’s Meltdown Festival. It is published by FSG and was broadcast on radio with host Ira Glass. Her play Tale of 2Cities: An American Joyride, published by SemioText(e), won an OBIE for ensemble performance. She is a recipient of numerous awards including the Spalding Gray, N.E.A. and the C.O.L.A.

  • Diane

    Amen, sister!

  • Jane Morris

    innovation is like porn. you know it when you see it.

  • Anna Warwick

    I might be slow here, but isn’t innovation synonymous with creativity in art? Doesn’t art = creativity = innovation? Is it art if it isn’t innovative?

  • Takeshi Yashima

    Innovation is creation. Only creative mind can invent.

  • dannyheim

    bitchen, really bitchen, go girl