Three Invitations (to save the world)

by Adam S Horowitz

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).

I can’t make it to the TCG conference this year, but want to plant three thought experiments to accompany you throughout.

In the theater we often talk about what’s at stake in a given scene or performance. We heighten the stakes so as to raise the dramatic tension and make the moments onstage as vital as possible.

Since the actions we take largely stem from the questions we ask, let me ask: what’s at stake with this conference in Dallas? Hundreds of people will travel thousands of miles, undergo invasive security procedures, leave loved ones and toothbrushes behind, gobble down early-morning breakfast buffets, and throw away untold shower caps, all in order to congregate, face to face, around this temporary, metaphorical campfire.

Given the expenditure of time and resources – not to mention the carbon footprint – there’d better be something serious at stake.

Invitation #1: Consider what’s at stake, alone or with colleagues. Then ask the question, how might we collectively raise the stakes? And what, in our wildest dreams, might happen if we do?

We theater-makers often have a hunch that we’re out to save the world. Let me indulge that sense of heroism for a moment, and suggest that what’s at stake at the 2013 TCG Conference is nothing less than the future of humanity. You’ve been invited as a visionary leader, and, like a League of Nations summit or a UN Convention, the outcomes of this gathering will change the course of humanity, for better or for worse.

What then will you choose to do? How will you innovate and toward what end?

At its best, I believe that theater can strengthen social imagination and expand our collective circle of care. Perhaps what’s at stake, then, is the future culture of humanity. Culture precedes politics, and we are shapers of culture. What kind of culture(s) are we out to create? What if this gathering of the TCG community in Dallas could be the historical moment that ushers in the paradigm shift from a consumer culture to a creator culture – the gathering that forges not a creative class but a creative society? Lofty? Yes. But why aspire to less?

Here’s why these may be worthy stakes and challenges:

This is a century in which broken systems will have to be rebuilt – from health care to food security, energy to education. More than ever, citizens need not only to be able to navigate rapidly shifting social, economic, and environmental climates, they need to be able to conceive of and take part in the creation of new systems. MIT Professor, Otto Scharmer, has called this dawning era the age of the “co-creative economy,” characterized by “awareness-based collective action” and fueled by “cultural and creative capital.” In order to prepare our citizenry to be effective co-creators of emerging systems—systems that are more aligned with basic human values and needs than our current ones—we must provide universal access, from a young age, to empowering collaborative and creative experiences that cultivate empathy and imagination. We will have to spend time on the playground of  Joseph Beuys’ “social sculpture” and take on the role of Augusto Boal’s “spectactors.” We will need STEAM, not just STEM. And we will need theater-makers to bring imaginative, collaborative thinking to city government, social change organizations, schools, streets, and beyond, in ever greater numbers.

If what’s at stake is the future culture of humanity, then what happens at this conference must extend beyond the conference and, also, beyond theater circles. Doing so will require not just innovation, but somehow bringing that innovation to scale.

Invitation #2: Consider what it means to “scale innovation” and then find new words and metaphors for “scaling” and “innovation.”

That phrase, “bringing innovation to scale” makes me a little bit nauseous. And I suspect that many other artists may grow queasy or suspicious upon seeing either of those words, let alone the two together. “Scaling” is business lingo and implies replicability and impersonality. Scaling is in the DNA of the corporations that turn our parks into parking lots and squash local culture and enterprise with homogenous fluorescent-lit chains. With scale comes power – the power to co-opt, impose, bulldoze, and establish the new normal. Our creative, theatrical acts, tend to be relatively site-specific and are almost always ephemeral in nature. But they’re not without power.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” With the future of humanity at stake, how will we strike the balance between love and power? Can theater-makers bring love to scale? What practices, projects, models and methodologies might we choose and use to do so? What’s the new normal that we would choose to bring to scale? (And what old normals will we create new space for?)

And while we’re at, let’s find some new language, instead of “scaling.” Is there a natural or biological rather than a business metaphor that we can use? Since our work as artists involves crafting metaphors, this ought to be the right group to find the new language.

Now, innovation. Across sectors “innovators” and others have grown allergic or immune to the term, frequently wielded like a magic wand meant to invoke hope, salvation, and dollar bills. Innovation has become a vague linguistic deus ex machina, something to use when precise language or logic becomes too burdensome. The term and the trend represent an obsession with newness that tends to trump any understanding from whence the supposed innovation came and where it’s headed. Innovation is not net positive. Toward what end do we innovate?

While corporations tend to innovate toward efficiency, scale, the unlocking of new markets, and the unseating of competitors, artists and cultural workers tend to innovate toward other ends—human connectedness and cohesion, social justice, empathy, alternative economies, democracy, plurality, equity, etc.

As with any kind of craftsperson, the theater-maker can easily become focused on formal innovations within the art form itself – new ways of staging, rehearsing, crafting dialogue, developing characters. And that is very important. That’s what makes a craft a craft. We might call this internal innovation; it’s intrinsic to the form. The kind of innovation that I’m interested in exploring and catalyzing, then, might be external innovation, having less to do with the theatrical content and more with the theatrical context.  If theater is a vessel that contains story, language, image, and movement, I’m interested in how that vessel lands on new shores, collides with other non-theatrical vessels, invites strangers and pirates on board, and expands so as to hold whole populations, towns, cities. I believe that an emphasis on this kind of external innovation may be critical to theater’s survival, and to our very survival as a species. (Keeping those stakes high!)

Invitation #3: Leave with a commitment to action, and an accountabilibuddy.

One of the perennial problems with conferences is the Now-What?-Effect. You have an exhilarating whirlwind of meetings and greetings, invocations, intoxications (?), and inspirations and then…you’re back home, same old plain old.

Having decided for yourself what’s at stake, having defined for yourself what innovation is and to what end you’re innovating, and having at least considered what it might mean to bring it to scale, I invite you to come up with one action that you’d like to commit to taking on and being held accountable for over the next year. Think high-impact, low-infrastructure. Something that could perhaps inspire action elsewhere. Something you’ve always wanted to do, or have done and want to take farther, or something totally new. It could be a kind of dinner or series, a public happening or pop-up model, an exchange, anything, so long as it speaks to your sense of what’s at stake and whatever it is you’ve decided you’re innovating towards.

Then find a colleague at the conference (or elsewhere, if you’re not attending), share the intention with them, and commit to holding each other accountable to bringing your respective ideas to life within the year. Maybe what you create will be simple or catchy enough as an idea or form that your accountabilibuddy (and others) will pick it up and try it too.

I don’t know how many people read this blog. Few may make it to the bottom, and fewer still may take me up on this, but here’s the final invitation: if at any point – before, during, or after the conference –  you’re inspired to share your idea and want an accountabilibuddy to hold you to it, send me a note with your action-commitment and I will connect you, at random, to a fellow conference-goer or reader who has also written in in search of an accountabilibuddy! Kind of magic, huh? Like pen pals, but for grown-ups who are out to save the world in their own powerful, loving ways. The future of humanity is, of course, up to all of us, but sometimes it’s easier to innovate with someone cheering you on. At your service, [adam.s.horowitz (at) gmail (dot) com].


Adam S Horowitz is a self-declared “projectician”—a collaborator and instigator of border-crossing projects rooted in storytelling, cultural exchange, and social change. At Yale University, Adam directed an experimental theater ensemble, conducted interviews with visiting artists for the World Performance Project, and wrote an award-winning ethnography on performance and immigration in New Haven. Adam is a founding team member of The Future Project – a national education initiative to reinvigorate public high schools by partnering students with community members to build passion-inspired creative change projects. Adam lives in Brooklyn and is currently barn-raising the United States Department of Arts and Culture. Stay tuned.