Remarks at Opening of Artistic Innovation Arc

by Howard Shalwitz

in Artistry & Artistic Innovation,National Conference

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Hello everyone.  I’m happy to see so many of you here to continue the conversation about artistic innovation that began at last year’s conference in Boston.  And I want to thank Teresa, Dafina, and Gus for making space for this arc here in Dallas, and for pulling together such a provocative set of panels and therapy sessions for us over the next few days.  I also want to thank all the session leaders and participants who are bringing so much passion to the various facets of this topic.

The speech I gave a year ago in Boston, entitled “Theatrical Innovation: Whose Job Is It?”, was inspired by my travels beginning in 2009 to see theatre in Poland, Bulgaria, Russia, and Hungary.  I was struck by the overall level of innovation I saw in European theatre, by the wide variety of approaches to making plays, by the complex layering of the work above and beyond its narrative features, and by the fact that both classics and new plays often felt like re-inventions of the art form —  in ways that spoke directly to the social and political life of the nation.

In the speech, I drew a comparison to the work of The Group Theatre in New York in the 1930s, whose social and political agenda drove them to develop new approaches to acting, directing, design, and playwriting – all the disciplines of theatre together — and to become arguably the most innovative and influential theatre troupe in American history.  I concluded that innovation depends on a shared sense of purpose among all the artists involved in a production, and that it is much more likely to happen when they have a chance to work together throughout the life of a project.

Finally, I discussed what I called “the assembly line” at many American theatres, including my own.  For very practical reasons, theatres tend to focus first on the playwright or script, then on the director, then on the designers, and finally, and only for a few weeks, on the actors.  I challenged us, as a field, to see if we could find more opportunities for actors, directors, designers, and playwrights to gather and work together “off the assembly line,” where the pressure for results is not so stifling, and where the chance of developing a shared sense of purpose and innovative ideas is much greater.

In preparing for the speech in Boston, I had the chance to speak with many colleagues who provided inspiring examples of off-the-assembly-line approaches:

  • Playwright Jose Cruz Gonzales spoke the play-creation methodology he learned at Cornerstone Theatre, and his success in applying it at more traditional regional theatres – by insisting that all his collaborators gather together before a single line of text has been written.
  • Artistic Director Bob Falls of the Goodman Theatre spoke about his production of THE SEAGULL for which he was able to carve out a 12-week rehearsal period and apply the actor-centered methodology outlined in Mike Alfred’s brilliant book, DIFFERENT EVERY NIGHT.
  • Artistic Director Blanka Zizka of The Wilma Theatre spoke about the transformative effect of gathering actors for a week-long  training workshop a couple of months in advance of each of her productions.
  • And director Robert Woodruff spoke about the support he has received from Yale Rep to launch a series of projects, beginning in each case with little more than a topic or book or specific artistic challenge to investigate, plus a group of collaborators to do it with.
  • I’ve been equally inspired over the past few years by devising ensembles like Pig Iron, The Civilians, The Debate Society, and many others who investigate areas of common interest together, and gradually build up a performance, with or without a writer, over an extended series of workshops.

In the next few days, I’m sure we’ll hear many more inspiring examples like these.  To frame our conversations, I’d like to offer five short theses about innovation.  I hasten to add that I am not an expert or even a consultant on the topic of innovation, so I hope you will test and challenge these proposals vigorously.  I also hope you’ll forgive me for using a few examples from my own work, but they will help to illustrate my points.

  1.  First, a simple definition:  Innovation means working in new and different ways with the goal of achieving new and different results.  It is not the same as creativity, which I hope is a part of our work in the theatre every day.  And it is not the same as originality, which I suppose is either part of our particular DNA as artists or not.  Innovation is more intentional than either of these.  It comes from a conscious decision to try a new pathway you haven’t tried before.
  2. Second, artistic innovation is relative to who you are, to what you’ve already done as an artist or a theatre, and to the specific community you work in.  In this regard, I find it useful to distinguish between Innovation with a big “I,” and innovation with a little “i.”  For example, the introduction of Stanislavsky’s ideas into the training of American actors had far-reaching consequences for the course of our theatre history, as did the decisions by Zelda Fichandler and Margo Jones to start professional companies outside of New York, as did the introduction of video to the stage.   Big “I” innovations like these come along a few times each century.  But just a few weeks ago, I tried a new approach to my first rehearsal for a new play — by dispensing with the usual table work and asking the actors to just get up on their feet and do the play.   I’m hardly the first director to try this, but for me it was new, and it had far-reaching consequences for the way the show ultimately landed on our stage.  Little “i” innovations like this are within reach every day.  And I believe that the rare, big “I” innovations are only possible in a culture where little “i” innovations are happening quite often.
  3. Third, artistic innovation brings you closer to functioning like an artist, not just like a craftsperson or entertainer.  When you are thinking intentionally about how you would like to change or evolve the way you work, you are required to take a stance in relation to your own past work, in relation to the history of the field, and most of all, in relation to the world around you.  Instead of asking “how can I do a good job on this play and make it work for my audience,” you also start to ask, “what would it mean to do a good job on this play, why would it matter, what new ideas or approaches might help it matter?”  Three years ago at Woolly, for example, we were starting to talk about civic discourse as the main raison d’etre of our work.  Around the same time I was beginning to work on CLYBOURNE PARK, and so I shared the new emphasis on civic discourse with our designers, and asked how the play could feel more like a civic conversation, not just a private one.  This led to a simple but unexpected idea — to include a small section of audience members sitting on the stage, peering through the dining room window of the house where the play is set.  This had a transformative effect on how our production was experienced by the audience, and made the relevance of the play for our community quite palpable.   Again, we were certainly not making theatre history by putting audience members on the stage.  But for us, it was a novel and important artistic choice that grew from our specific purpose in doing the play.  It gave us a sense of pride about our relationship as artists to the community around us.  And three years later people are still talking about it.
  4. Fourth, artistic innovation deepens your relationship with your audience and supporters.  Instead of talking with them just about your upcoming shows or season, you can begin talking about the way your artistic process affects the character of your work, about your evolution and long-term goals as artists, your dreams for the kind of the theatre you hope to achieve in the future.  This kind of dialogue enlists your supporters in the overall project that your theatre represents over time.  It helps them understand the full range of your work including shows they don’t especially like, and gives them a deeper connection to your more specific financial needs like higher artistic salaries and extra rehearsal time.  At Woolly Mammoth, for example, we have started a special fund called “Free the Beast” which will invest in 25 plays over ten years and allow us to pay for long-term commissions, workshops, extra rehearsals, and company-building activities we couldn’t previously afford.  It took us a few years to effectively articulate the case for this fund, and it has not been the easiest money to raise.  But it has absolutely deepened our connection with donors and audiences, allowed us to move closer to our ideal way of working, and made room for new artistic innovations.
  5. Fifth, artistic innovation – because it comes from deep collaboration and significant trial and error – requires extra time and resources, and so it is often dependent on other innovations in the areas of fundraising, marketing, financial management, etc.  The good news is that the effort to identify and articulate new innovations draws the artistic and the management sides of the theatre together in powerful ways, and makes everyone feel connected to the theatre’s fundamental purpose.  The bad news is that everyone has to get out of their silos, out of the crush of their everyday work, in order to figure out how to find the resources for innovation and overcome the obstacles that stand in the way.

As I’m sure you can tell, I believe that the drive toward artistic innovation is worth the effort.  It enhances our personal satisfaction as artists and keeps us fresh over time.  It can galvanize and excite audiences and convince them of the vitality of our work.  And it can help to position theatre more deeply within our culture, not just as a source of entertainment, but as an art form in dialogue with its own history and traditions, and with the society and the world around us.

I’m sure I don’t need to convince any of you – otherwise you wouldn’t be here.  I’m eager to hear your thoughts over the coming hours and days.

Thank you.

Howard Shalwitz is Co-Founder and Artistic Director of the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, DC. He has been the visionary force behind the company for 32 seasons, steering its adventurous play selection, guiding the development of dozens of new works, building a renowned acting company, and leading Woolly Mammoth in the creation of an award-winning new downtown theatre which opened in May 2005.