by Chris Wells

in Artistry & Artistic Innovation,National Conference


(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).

When asked to write about Innovation in the Theatre, I thought, Yay! Innovation. I love innovation. This was followed almost immediately by less-sexy thoughts – Wait, Innovation? What is innovation? Here are some thoughts and questions that remain following the showdown between Yay, Innovation! and Wait, Innovation?

IT’S PERSONAL. How may I push myself to make work that is responding to the ever-changing world around and within me? It’s easy to find that thing you’re good at and then just do it for the rest of your life with little change. For inspiration, I look to folks like Joni Mitchell and Bjork, the Canadian dance company La La La Human Steps, the collection of The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore; artists who continually push/ed themselves to break open again and again to find new ways of expressing what must come out.

RISK. I’ve been a performer for over 30 years, a writer for 15 and a producer for 10, and the thing that makes me most excited is risk; it’s become a benchmark for me – if it doesn’t have risk in it, it’s not art. This is what it means to be a shaman, right? To be willing to step into the circle, to take on the feelings, stories and values of the entire village and, just before beginning the rite to think, “well, this might have been a really bad idea, but I’m here to be transformed, right? So, here we go…”

LET’S RESPOND TO OUR FEELINGS! Seven years ago, after doing a bunch of regional theatre, it dawned on me that I was being hired to entertain rich people between dinner and bedtime. The work I was taking part in was confirming a limited worldview. That realization hit me in the early part of the run, so every night it sunk in deeper that my values didn’t matter, my perceptions didn’t matter, in short, that I didn’t matter. After the show closed, I took a break from acting to get back in touch with what I wanted to say.

COMMUNITY. In 2007, I started The Secret City, a performance ritual that combines the structure of a religious service with artistic content as a means to explore the sacred in art. I wanted the spirit back in my theatre, and the theatre back in my spirit. And I don’t mean god, but spirit – the essence that connects us all and that is most easily found in art. The Secret City meets monthly in New York City, and quarterly in LA. In the next several years, we’ll be expanding to cities around the country and the world. Community-building and connection-seeking is innovative.

MORE ART THAT LEADS TO RIOTING. The other day was the 100th anniversary of the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in Paris. I was working on a blog posting about it, so was reading up on that amazing event a century ago. The music Stravinsky wrote was radical, for sure, but on top of that, Nijinsky had choreographed the piece in a style that is controversial even today. The most telling anecdote from that night was this: at one point, Nijinsky stood in the wings, stomping out the rhythm on the stage floor, because the dancers could not hear the orchestra over the screaming of the enraged audience.

IT’S EASY TO CRITICIZE. I used to dine out on my ability to tear apart somebody else’s work, and thrill to the delicious taste of righteous anger. I still feel the pull to be negative, to take personally every experience that doesn’t please me. In the past several years, I’ve become far more appreciative of anyone who accomplishes anything in this world; seriously – it is so hard to get anything done! Creating anything is innovative. Nowadays, I actively attempt to be more compassionate, more understanding, more encouraging.

LEADERSHIP ISN’T JUST FOR LEADERS ANYMORE. You can be a leader by making work that you care about, living where you feel you can make a difference, interacting with your community in ways that might be unexpected. A lot of us feel that we’re powerless to impact the world, but at every level of society, in every department of an organization, in any role of a family, we have the power to make choices that impact ourselves and our institutions.

WHO ELSE IS HERE? Perhaps I’m codependent, but I’m not just interested in the show on the stage, but the show in the house, too. Over the years, I’ve done a lot of cabaret work, and I love that dangerous, live connection one feels in a great cabaret experience. In making theatre, I want to touch the people I’m speaking to – not just entertain them, or provide an experience for them to consume, or vote thumbs up/thumbs down, but to actually say, “We are all in the room together, having a real, live, shared experience.” And, I want the presence of those people to inform the theatre being made.

COMMUNICATION. All the world’s problems could be improved by more intentional communication. We see that in our personal and professional relationships. And, artists are the keepers of communication, the ones charged with expressing the difficult, beautiful, dark, substantive truths about being alive. So, how do we use the tools we have to impact the world around us?

COLLABORATION. It’s hard to resist the pull toward hierarchical structures and the thrill of power. Collaboration asks us to acknowledge our shared humanity, and to rise above our ego-driven agendas. It’s also helpful to seek out other art forms. One of my favorite parts of making theatre is the first day of rehearsal when the dramaturg brings in pictures of dance, or film clips, or a story from a faraway place explaining how seemingly disparate things inform each other. Expansion is innovative.

SINCERITY. Sincerity is not the same as boring. Sincerity means that you mean what you say. The saddest thing is to sit through something that leaves one feeling like life doesn’t matter and that leaving the house was a waste of time. All we have are our choices – to apply sincerity to our choices is key. This is mindfulness in art, to mean what we say and do, and to believe that these choices make a difference in the world. Bitterness is not innovative.

INVENTION IS NOT INNOVATION. For an art form that has been left in the dust by recent inventions – TV, radio, film, the internet – it’s important to look at what is inherent in live performance and to lean into it. Now more than ever, we need the live event to remind us that we rely on each other. We need to be able to sit in a room together and experience an exchange of feelings, thoughts, joy and silence.

EXCLUSIVITY. There are a lot of people who like to limit access to power. It’s probably related to living in a capitalistic culture, but we are corrupted with the idea that, while there may be enough for everybody, not necessarily everybody should have it. So, generosity is innovative, sharing is innovative, telling someone about a great opportunity that you might be up for yourself, is innovative. And, trust; that there is more than enough for everyone and that you can let go of control – that’s innovative.

SHAKESPEARE IS NOT INNOVATIVE. Seriously, people put on a lot of Shakespeare. And he’s amazing, right? I know, that sounds lame but, I get it. A lot of really talented people feel passionately about his work and do it beautifully. So, this might just be me looking for a fight, but can we take a break? Can we have a national moratorium on producing Shakespeare in any shape or form for, I don’t know, five years? And, we’re not getting rid of him, we’re saying, Hey, Shakespeare, you’re amazing, and we’re so grateful for what you’ve done for the theatre, the world, humanity. We love you SO much!! Now, here’s a ticket to Tahiti, and a nice cottage on the beach with catered meals. Maybe take up painting for a while? Meanwhile, back home, let’s look for people whose voices we’ve not heard enough, or never heard at all, and let’s produce their work! Imagine what’s out there, being made out of bottle caps and grass, song fragments and found letters, anger and frustration, archeological finds and fresh dreaming. Let’s champion those people! Let’s make work that threatens us, pushes us out of comfort zone, wakes us up, forces us to meet each other and leads to riots. In 5 years, when Shakespeare comes back from Tahiti and we take him to see a show he might say, “Wow, I’ve never seen anything like this. This is fantastic stuff. I mean, really fantastic. I wish I’d thought of that.”

Chris Wells is an actor, writer, teacher and community leader who divides his time between New York and LA. In 2007, he created The Secret City, the Obie Award winning organization that worships art. Wells is madly at work completing his first book, I’m About To Touch You – a Memoir in 29 stories. www.thesecretcity.org