A professor in graduate school offhandedly asked me a question one day, which changed my life. That question was a seemingly simple one: “What is your business?” Without knowing what she was getting at, I replied, “Well, I’m a director, and I run a small national theatre festival.” She said to me, “No, you see, you just told me your profession. That is your job. What I’m asking is: what is it that you aim to do through your work besides make money and survive? Let me reframe the question: What are you in the business of? Your answer just tells me you have a gig. If you are going to do anything of lasting value to impact human beings with your work, you have to know what your business is. Just because your job is in the theatre, doesn’t automatically mean you get to be an agent of change.” It took me a long time to unpack her offering to me. It’s still impacting how I think about my actions.
I’ve noticed that the term agent of change has been thrown around a lot lately on twitter, blog posts, and especially in a popular Facebook meme, which quotes a famous Hollywood actor exclaiming that all actors are indeed agents of change (which was the inspiration for this post, btw.) I first learned the concept rooted in Paulo Freire’s principles of a humanizing pedagogy in Pedagogy of The Oppressed, and specifically applied to theatrical vocabulary in Augusto Boal’s work. This is a charged term for theatre artists connected to theatre for social justice, community-engaged theatre, educational theatre, and other “applied theatre” modes of work that is participant or population centered—often created outside of the walls of production focused institutions.
To riff on this for a while: work by countless theatre artists engaged through residencies, in educational setting, prisons, senior centers, in populations of circumstance and/or interest, and through any conceivable number of community partnerships on a daily basis. This work is about change, access, education, dialogue, understanding, justice, truth, and providing individuals and tools for great advancement. Yes, the buzzwords are all too familiar, but in real time: the methodology and ideology of this type of work in practice in awe-inspiring. Those who engage in this work are put in positions to challenge, negotiate, and redefine their personal sense of agency at every turn. Brilliant bodies of work become hard to identify as the work itself is not about an end product like a production, or the artifact of a script, but lives in the experience of specific individuals who were engaged in a process made for them. It can be hard, dangerous, rewarding, and thankless work. Many practitioners under the “applied theatre” umbrella have accumulated long, rich, important careers, which will impact generations of work to come. Yet, in the wider community’s consciousness, their accomplishments are so unknown. (Boal is an example of one practitioner we do know, and a lot of that can be attributed to his writing of theory and documentation of his practice.) Often times, work which has socially engaged methodology receives far less of our collective focus in daily conversations, on social media, and in publication, than the sexier hot-button topics of development, access, and production politics surrounding the new play sector. This is par for the course with any work that is process and engagement oriented, as it is by nature demographically specific work that exists at a certain time for a certain population. The work leaves few artifacts for our mass consumption, and has few overtly recognizable figures to rally behind. Simply: the work is important, but it is hardly mainstream.
As thinkers, contributors, leaders, and problem solvers, new play sector topics seem to command a lot of our attention. This is especially true when conversations in the theatre turn to topics innovation, and with good reason. In our field, there are glaring detriments of access, representation, inclusiveness, and accountability. The conditions for innovation exist in our field because there is a tangible need for change. These topics force us to define our agency, and attempt to live our ideas in practice.
Going back to a Freirean frame, the fundamentals of radical change may look something like this: subscribing to a belief in a radical humanizing pedagogy, identifying and naming systems of oppressors and the oppressed, a commitment to being person or participant-centered in artistic modes of engagement, and offering the tools necessary for individuals and groups to make necessary changes through love, dialogue, education, understanding, repetition, commitment, and identifying critical changes of appraisal. It is a skill set, a learned behavior, and a lived attitude. It is a way of life that has to be learned, practiced, shared, reflected upon, refined, reapplied, and paid forward. It’s a way of being which is earned through many cycles of action and reflection. We achieve our agency through prolonged practice, a body of work, and concrete results through engagement. It’s about action, but more importantly, a deep sense of understanding the why? Simply: it’s an attitude. It may seem cliché, but it’s that whole be the change you want to see thing. If we don’t live your ideas, how will we expect others to? This commitment of belief might be the seed of innovation itself.
It’s no secret that many of us experience a lasting frustration towards institutions and systems of development and production that are not doing enough to combat the lack of artists of color, women, underrepresented points of view, early career artists, and alternative artist in mainstream programming. Almost every statistic floating around that is shared, quoted, and written about, points to our theatre culture being riddled with great imbalances. However, for every condemning statistic about things we are getting wrong, there are just as may brilliant cultural combatants and innovators, who are constantly introducing new ideas that promote change. There is a lot of good work happening, an abundance of good ideas bubbling up, and an army of capable artists, leaders, and trendsetters, doing inspiring pitch-perfect work responding to the wider world. They innovate in response to systems of power and influence, out of necessity and instinct.
What has become clear is that decision makers, gate keepers, and institutional stakeholders who chose to ignore these overwhelming calls for great change, despite having the power to make a difference, have become active participants in one of the most dangerous systems of oppression: apathy. Yes, it’s uncomfortable to call out our leaders for not doing enough out of fear for backlash, but it’s even more detrimental to be passive when the problems are so present. If we don’t, what will change?
Oppression does exist in our field. It can manifest itself in obvious ways like in the lack of diversity in play selection, or casting; and, in not so obvious ways, like lack of community partnerships, educational programming choices, and access programs. What those in positions of power chose to talk about says just as much about them as what they chose to ignore. It is important to name the instances when they happen to fall short, and from where/from whom we are receiving our messages, if we are to create the conditions for change through innovation.
There is a push in our field to hold gatekeepers accountable for their choices as if they are elected officials representing the needs of immediate communities. In many ways this is the right idea, because they kind of are. Per example: I’d like to recognize Julie Dubiner, the dramaturg at OSF, for calling on artists to meet with artistic directors to advocate for programming during season selection periods in their local theatre communities. If adopted regularly, this might be an innovation of community engagement, by standing it on it’s head. We tend to think of community engagement as an institution’s job to reach out to the wider community. What might happen if we as civilians in the communities we live in are encouraged to step up and engage the institutions to demand the programming that meets us where we are? Might that change the dynamics of our narratives?
The demand for change is a radical act in and of itself. Change starts by naming oppressive elements, reflecting on how/why these elements impact us to achieve understanding, and finally by finding new pathways towards beneficial results with actions. Change is fundamental to our business. Innovations are the markers that we accumulate and recognize as significant along the way.
So, in an attempt to tie this back to the original question that was asked of me: What am I in the business of? I took this prompt upon myself as a call to action. This simple question propelled me to re-examine my personal mission, helped me to be more discerning about why I make the choices I make before I act, and to reflect more deeply on what my actions achieved or not before acting again: to engage in praxis. I learned a lot about myself for better and worse, because of this question, and often pausing to ask why in the moment, allows me to discover how to take action. Innovation can also be a quiet and personal process. So, I dare to ask you: What is your business?
Last year, TCG prompted us to frame what if? questions to promote a big map of questions, assets, and ideas. I found it to be a particularly good barometer of where we were at the time, and I hope we continue to find ways of keeping this investigation alive. Here are some what if? questions, inspired by other conversations, that strikes me as being in conversation with topics of agency, innovation, and change:
-What if we strive to make education departments, their missions, and practitioners just as recognizable as mainstage programming choices?
-What if we think about community engagement from the outside in: how can the community reach out and ask things of institutions as common practice? How can we get institutions to become receptive to what the community is offering?
-What if we challenge our large institutions to create a 5-mile project: Who lives in a 5 mile radius from your theatre? Under what conditions do they live there? What community orgs exist in that radius? What kind of work do they do? What would it look like to define community partnerships by meeting these individuals and orgs where they are?
-What if we create career development for artists to become the administrators at the theatres, to redefine and radicalize the concept of a staff? (Credit to JD Carter for his recent post on the concept of administrating artists, not arts administrators.)
-What if we hold artistic leaders and gatekeepers accountable for their promises through a grading system like Stage Grade for plays reviews or senate report card for elected public officials?
In closing, I’d like to take this opportunity to recognize some of the companies, individuals, and current movements in the field who are achieving meaningful innovations through a commitment to radical change. I would love it, if in the comments section of this post, you continue to add to it and recognize those you feel are making a great impact. These are just a few I’ve gotten to know or experience in my time working in the American Theatre. This list reflects my observations and values. Some of my favorite agents of change are (In no particular order):
Cornerstone Theatre Company, Creative Arts Team (CAT Youth Theatre), All Stars Project, Arts for All, Castillo Theatre, Falconworks Artists Group, Shakespeare Behind Bars, The Garner Players at Garner Correctional Facility, Making Books Sing, Michael John Garcés, Helen White, Chris Vine, NoPassport, 2amT, Howlround.com, Caridad Svich, Dr. Polly Carl, David Dower, Vijay Matthew, David J. Loehr, Travis Bedard, and all of the other citizens of 2amT for keeping these forums going, Geoffrey Jackson Scott at Victory Gardens Theater, New Dramatists, The Lark Play Development Center, Todd London, John Eisner, Michael Robertson, The Einhorn School of Performing Arts (ESPA) at Primary Stages, Tessa LaNeve, The Applied Theatre Departments at CUNY and USC, Mixed Blood Theatre’s Radical Hospitality program, Jack Reuler, INTAR Theatre, and many others.
These are just a few of my Agents of Change. Who are your heroes? What is their business? Please share below in the comments section…
Dominic D’Andrea is the founder and producing artistic director of the One-Minute Play Festival (#1MPF.) He has led over 30 national festivals in partnerships with Primary Stages, Victory Gardens Theater, Cornerstone Theatre Company, Playwrights Foundation, Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, Actor’s Express, HERE Arts Center, INTAR Theatre, Mixed Blood, InterAct Theatre, Passage Theatre, The Brick, and others. Notable OMPF contributors have included: Jose Rivera, David Henry Hwang, Neil LaBute, Donald Margulies, Jason Grote, Tina Howe, Phillip Kan Gotanda, Craig Lucas, Kristoffer Diaz, Rajiv Joseph, Migdalia Cruz, Nilaja Sun, Sam Hunter, Lydia Diamond, along with over 500 other famous, emerging, and mid career writers. As director Dominic has worked with the Lark Play Development Center (8 seasons), The Brick, Vampire Cowboys, Red Fern, NYU’s Dept of Dramatic Writing, E.S.T, INTAR, Primary Stages, The Kennedy Center, Source Theatre, and more. He was a 2012 NewYorkTheatre.com person of the year, is a faculty member of ESPA at Primary Stages, and recently completed his graduate work at CUNY’s Applied Theatre Program.