(Photo: Caridad Svich addressing the Artistic Innovation homeroom, by Michal Daniel. Editor’s note: Caridad’s remarks have been available as an archived video courtesy of HowlRound.TV since soon after the National Conference ended. However, the extraordinary series of essays she curated continued for months afterwards, and so we now offer the text of her opening remarks as a closing to this series, and, perhaps, the beginning of whatever is next. I offer my own deep and abiding thanks to Caridad for this essay, and for her passionate and inclusive curation of the Artistic Innovation blog salon. – G. Schulenburg.)
To Believe (a theatre credo)
By Caridad Svich
I am an optimist. Better said: I am a creative optimist. Why else would I have written seven uncommissioned plays in the last year and a half, and be in midst of two more, as we speak? (talk about a pitching dilemma!)
I believe in the power of art. I use the word “art” without shame.
I use the word “poetry” too without shame, for I believe theatre – the event of it, the making of it – at its best, is poetry in motion.
I say that without irony. I really do believe theatre is poetry.
I also believe in the potential that radical innovation holds: namely, revolution, invention and transfiguration in culture, art, society and love.
I also believe in the right to fail.
Without it, as art-makers, we are nothing.
Without it, as producers and presenters, we are nothing.
Without it, audiences will never know the beauty of what the future may hold.
Think of Stravinsky and “The Rite of Spring.” To name only one example out of many throughout history. Had there not been another hearing of the orchestral work on 18 February 1914 in St. Petersburg, a year after the scandalous reaction to the ballet and score in its premiere with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, perhaps what is still considered today one of the most influential musical works of the 20th century might have been sacrificed on art’s altar and left there to burn and become ash.
Now, you may ask, why bother with belief systems when talking about art and this thing that most of us do called “theatre” in all its meta, hybrid, immersive and other veins?
Culturally, for about thirty years now in the US, we have been progressively steeped in wondrously fast and ever-upgrading innovations in digital technology, market-driven, consumer-aimed and otherwise. Twin engines of profit and wizardry have created a “boom” for faster, better, and seemingly wiser materials and objects: the latest app, the newest phone, the sleeker design, the more portable, functional, gigabyte heavy, efficient mega-machinery – all, hopefully, at our fingertips, and able to cradled gently in our palms.
We spend most of our days in standard postures of reverence, hunched over, with our heads bowed, in praise, glory and dependence upon our magnificent machines.
No secret here. We have been cyborgs for a long time.
The gap between digital immigrants and digital natives keeps diminishing.
In theatre – this creaky, ancient, battered-about, profane and sacred form- the work is aided by our lovely machines, in its process and production, but perhaps one of the aspects that makes this syn-aesthetic form so distrusted oftentimes by other art forms and by the culture at large, is the fact that as cultural workers in live performance, the work more often than not still is somehow born out of and through bodies and blood, and hearts and minds. It is about the touch of others and being touched by others. It is vulgar, I suppose, in some people’s eyes, and hopelessly antiquated and desperately analogue in its essence, in those of others.
Theatre can never really compete with faster, better culture. And I would agree, as my colleagues Heather Woodbury, Lisa Schlesinger and Andy Smith have already remarked over the last few weeks on the Artistic Innovation salon I have curated for the TCG Circle, that what we need is a slow, slower theatre. In other words, not to mimic what our culture is already doing faster and arguably “better” than us, but to counter it, and in so doing, do one of the central jobs of art, which is the job of resistance. Not duty. Not mimicry. But resistance and challenge to the status quo.
Consider, for example, Jeremy Pickard and Superhero Clubhouse’s call to action for the creation and implementation of a truly environmentally “green” theatre, where there is little to no waste come time to strike the show and where all the elements – from lighting to scenic design to running time – are part of an environmentally sound practice- an eco-theatre not just in the subject matter of its plays – but in its making and production. This, to me, seems quite sensible, yet also radical, resistant, for it calls into question much of the way a great deal of theatre is made and produced in the US (and I limit my remarks here to a national context, although I hope that over the next few days, we keep thinking globally about the kind of work we make and produce, read and translate, and educate).
Are we really ready to commit to a sustainable, environmentally green, energy efficient theatre?
What happens to all of our fancy machines then?
What happens to how long we keep the lights turned on?
I am humbled by the sheer abundance of passion, talent, skill, rage, and artistry in this, our field. Over the last few weeks, more than fifty practitioners and scholars have voiced their whimsical, fiery, deeply impassioned, political, thoughtful, funny, and sometimes elegiac and bitter words when prompted by a call to write about “artistic innovation.” Most of the artists have either written about formal innovation or reactions to and against late capitalism and how its economic structures have made the deceptively simple impulse to say “Let’s” – as Julie Felise Dubiner eloquently wrote in her essay of the same name – a torturous and somewhat long-winded affair that has left many an idea for the making and production of art on the cutting room floor. This same impulse is echoed in Zac Kline’s essay, which brims with the potential of the word “Yes”- how, in effect, a serendipitously thunderstruck moment of awe and wonder can occur when seeing work that makes you believe again in theatre’s power. This same ”Yes” is reiterated in Octavio Solis’ essay on how innovative writing can make an audience and fellow practitioner become re-awakened to seeing the world anew. What’s interesting, of course, is that this should be the goal each and every time, as hard as it may be: to make something because you want to have others see the world as if it were a new thing – new and wondrous, as Mark Schultz reminds us in his essay that centres on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and how the efficacies of wonder in art, or shall we say, the many uses of enchantment, reconnect us to the past, even as we are moving irrevocably forward.
In times of little means, an old Spanish saying goes, we will still have plenty. One of the constant refrains that circles among and within the subtext of so many conversations about theatre-making is one of, well, money itself:
who has it, how to get it, why did so-and-so get it and not I,
who has access, who doesn’t and why,
where is it, why do only a few mighty have it, why can’t the few mighty share it, and make the abundant field even more abundant than it already is,
why are time and money seemingly always at odds?
Ask most artists what they want, and by and large, time and money will be at the top of the list.
Time to make work without thinking about money. Money to make work to buy time.
Think of the gestation periods of most plays and the fragile economies and ecologies of an industry that perforce, if it believes in its artists and their personal visions, must find a way to support the making of a work of art. Consider, for example, the fact that Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem took seven years to write. Now, the industry itself doesn’t have, let’s say, an obligation to its artists – or wait, doesn’t it? This debate also circles amongst practitioners late nights in pubs and living rooms over wine and other things.
Are we all now dependent on crowd-funding?
Must every play come with a kickstarter campaign to make it happen?
How many hours will that take? And when does the art get made?
How does one budget one’s time and money and no money to actually move forward in the beautiful game we call innovation or better said: the pursuit of seeing the world anew?
We live in a commonwealth. We live in a commons. We seek the greater good.
I want to believe this because, as I said, I’m a creative optimist, and I still believe, twenty-five years into this game called theatre, that it can at its best, at its most daring, at its most confounding sometimes, at its most vulnerable, make us a better society.
I believe we are agents of change, to quote Dominic D’Andrea in his essay for the salon, and I believe that as agents of change we have a responsibility not only to ourselves – individually and to each other – but to the greater good of the field: how to sustain it, nurture it, keep it moving forward without leaving its histories and elders behind, and how to cope with and make space for the unruly gardens of promise and potentiality that are new works for live performance, be they written by someone in their teens or someone in their 80s.
You see, that’s the thing about art: the new stuff –the seeing the world through wondrous new eyes stuff- can happen anytime.
We only have to recall that story about a reader for an international theatre festival who was reading a new Caryl Churchill play, and being surprised when meeting her to discover that she was in her mid-70s. “But I thought you were in your 20s!” the reader is said to have remarked.
“Because the work…is so, so new.”
Is it idealistic or quixotic to consider how we can build a more sustainable theatre ecology, one that fosters more spaces of non-industry – more spaces for dreaming and tinkering and trying things out and failing and failing again and failing some more – so that truly new work can be made?
Would it hurt to make a production slot in a season a rough sketch slot instead and invite audiences and students to raw work?
Could budgets be allocated differently so that, in effect, the season programming mentality at resident theatres is reconfigured?
One thing I always dream about is why we can’t have shorter bursts of programming – say, three months at a time, and keep things fast, simple, and immediate (to the moment, to the times, to the art and where it is going), so that audiences, who regularly experience new movies and new music and new visual art all the time have the same sensation when they go to their local theatre?
They know the venue as a venue, let’s say, but in a given month, they may not know what the venue will produce in 8 months time. The “thrill” of the new will be there, I hazard to guess, and also, would allow theatres to actually be in the moment, responding to it, so that if a play or artist or ensemble has been tinkering for a while, and suddenly has something to show and share and let others in on, the space is there, the support system is there, the budget, because of its flexibility within parameters could accommodate it, and suddenly wouldn’t we have a more nimble, fluid, mobile theatre? With or without a building?
And wouldn’t a more nimble theatre be more intensely awake, and perhaps receptive to, and therefore, invite into, educate and enlighten audiences to be receptive to the quiet or noisy revolution that could be the next, new “Rite of Spring?”
If we believe that what we do matters, truly matters, in the grand scheme of things, in the spiritual sense of things, in how line and light and thought and motion and breath and skin and flight are theatre, rather than believe in or buy into a state of “reflexive impotence,” a phrase coined by cultural theorist Mark Fisher in his book Capitalist Realism (2009) – a state that acknowledges the fact that things are bad, but nothing can be done about it except to carry on, or to quote the populist phrase “keep calm and carry on,” wouldn’t our theatres rise and keep rising, and keep expanding horizontally rather than vertically across the many gardens and backyards and humble lots and parks and makeshift platforms and altar spaces and spaces of remembrance and reflection too in this our ever widening field lit by an ever widening sky?
If we allow ourselves to believe in more than the budget line and its hard, harsh realities and how it has come to dictate so many of our artistic decisions, and the ways we sometimes treat artists who for all intents and purposes, may just be seeking that crazy beautiful chaotic indefinable thing called “something new,” and instead allow ourselves to re-believe as new disciples in the shape-shifting theatre church, in its sacredness and profanity combined, in its ability to move culture with sometimes just two actors, some light and some words in that moment, for those who are there, for those who were there once and are our ghosts now, will we then find and maintain the greater good?
I’m an optimist. I say: Yes! Let’s.
Caridad Svich received a 2012 OBIE Award for Lifetime Achievement in the theatre, a 2012 Edgerton Foundation New Play Award for GUAPA, and the 2011 American Theatre Critics Association Primus Prize for her play The House of the Spirits, based on the Isabel Allende novel. She has edited several books on theatre including Out of Silence (Eyecorner Press), Trans-Global Readings and Theatre in Crisis? (both for Manchester University Press) Divine Fire (BackStage Books), Out of the Fringe (TCG), and Conducting a Life: Reflections on the Theatre of Maria Irene Fornes (Smith & Kraus). caridadsvich.com