“No one is funding joy”: An Affective Call to Arms

by Liane Tomasetti

in National Conference

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(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich.) 

 “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.” -Albert Einstein

Recently, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to attend a conference focused on teaching artistry held by New York University’s Program in Educational Theatre. The conference was filled with great connections, conversations, and discoveries for me, but one comment remains ingrained in my mind— “no one is funding joy.” This statement, made by a panelist discussing “Innovation in Teaching Artistry,” was met with a few laughs and appreciative sighs. The humor is not lost on me; funding joy does sound a bit preposterous, but why?

As a teaching artist myself, I realize that this statement is not as earth-shattering as it may seem. I am constantly asked to fit my artistry into some sort of programmatic goals or pre-conceived outcomes. I’m teaching literacy through playwriting, geometry through dance, or maybe even citizenship through song. The art that I am funded to do is meant to bring students or communities to a specific end—to become better readers or writers, to be healthier eaters, to be more creative problem-solvers, and the list goes on to include any range of specific skills, knowledge, or goals. In short, no one is funding me (or more specifically, the organizations I work for) to invite students to discover what it feels like to become a different character for the first time, to learn a dance from halfway around the world, to sing a song in perfect harmony, or to make whatever eye-opening discovery the arts ignite for any particular individual. It’s true. No one is funding joy.

Before I go on I would like to preface this stance with the fact that I love what I do. I am grateful every day to have the opportunity to share art with young learners. Therefore, I by no means intend to discourage applied theatre practice, having heard and experienced myself its transformative and positive potential. I just wonder what would happen if the art was considered the “real work.” What about art for art’s sake? Or perhaps even more radically, what if a focus on art for art’s sake was the unexamined key to truly engaging with these goals and possibilities. This tension between product and process isn’t limited to the classroom though, or “Theatre in Education” as some would call it. It is reflective of a wider problem faced across the field of applied theatre.

Although the practice of applied theatre is arguably nothing new, as people have been applying theatre to society for centuries through story, ritual and other rich performative traditions, the inception of the term and field itself is still debated. James Thompson delivers an interesting origin story in Applied Theatre: Bewilderment and Beyond. Writing as a practitioner in the United Kingdom, he claims that Applied Theatre emerged from a difficult economic climate of the 1980-90s, which in turn impacted the funding climate. He goes on to state that in this regard it arose from both practicality and idealism, a practicality in finding non-arts funding and an idealism for bringing ‘theatre to the people.’

Perhaps this is where the shift occurred; because when no one would fund joy, artists found a way to continue doing their work at whatever cost. But this focus on the effects can strip the artistic practice of the very possibilities that it can engender, or its affect. This is precisely what Thompson writes about in his most recent book Performance Affects: Applied Theatre and the End of Effect. He describes affect as the “emotional, often automatic, embodied responses that occur in relation to something else.” Thompson makes a call to affective arms, stating that “a sole concentration on social utility is in danger of abandoning the terrain of sensation: of the aesthetic concerns for beauty, joy, pleasure, awe and astonishment.” This focus on the effects and measurable outcomes can greatly limit a capable practitioner and the scope or potential of her or his work, or as Thompson would say, leaving her or him with “little capacity…for uniting a group in joy.”

A focus on joy, and all the other embodied and affective responses theatre can evoke, is what I believe will sustain and empower community-based theatre in all its forms and allow it to thrive. For as Jan Cohen-Cruz points out in Local Acts: Community-based Performance in the United States, “even when theatre can accomplish nothing, it can fulfill a variety of purposes.” It can connect, open, engage, alter, and reveal the fabric of communities and their members in new ways. The real question is though, how can this be communicated to funding bodies and other gatekeepers? How can affect, in all its amorphous in-betweeness, be embraced as a necessary part of successful community-based theatre projects?

Assuming that these funding bodies are interested in some type of “change” in the community, I offer the words of feminist theorist Angelika Bammer (quoted by Jill Dolan in Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theater), who postulates that the difficulty faced by movements that work towards social change is “sustaining the very principle on which [they are] predicated, namely the idea of the future as possibility rather than as preset goal.” I believe it is the emotions and affects that bring communities towards this future of what is “not yet” and “not here,” gesturing towards possibility. Affect creates an opening in its traces and impacts providing visions of change of what might be possible outside of performance. To return to Thompson for a moment, “a focus on affect insists that the lines between efficacy and entertainment are impossible to draw.” This is the main point that I seek to impart. That outcomes and affective theatre are not an either/or, but an and/with. And so I ask practitioners, funders, and participants alike to consider, what would a practice of “affecacy” look like, where all parties involved are open to the slow and often invisible process of change, trusting that the affective qualities of theatre are exactly what community-based theatre should be predicated on. What if it was understood that funding joy and funding community could be one and the same?

References:

Cohen Cruz, J. (2005). Local acts : Community-based Performance in the United States. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.

Dolan, J., 1957-. (2005). Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theater. Ann Arbor : University of Michigan Press.

Thompson, J., 1966-. (2003). Applied Theatre : Bewilderment and Beyond

Oxford ; New York : Peter Lang.

Thompson, J., 1966-. (2009). Performance Affects: Applied Theatre and the End of Effect Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan.

Suggestions for Further Reading:

Applied theatre international case studies and challenges for practice (2009). In Prendergast M., Saxton J. (Eds.), Bristol, UK ; Chicago : Intellect.

The applied theatre reader (2009). In Pretnki T., Preston S. (Eds.), London ; New York : Routledge.

Cohen-Cruz, J. (2010). Engaging performance : Theatre as call and response New York, NY : Routledge.

Landy, R. J., & Montgomery, D. T.Theatre for change : Education, social action and therapy Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire England ; New York, NY : Palgrave Macmillan.

Solnit, R. (2006). Hope in the dark : Untold histories, wild possibilities New York : Nation Books ; Berkeley, Calif. : Distributed by Publishers Group West.

Taylor, P. (2003). Applied theatre : Creating transformative encounters in the community Portsmouth, NH : Heinemann.


Liane Tomasetti is a New York based theatre artist, educator, and collaborator. She works as a teaching artist in New York City public schools and with the Center for Artistic Activism. She is currently pursuing a Master’s degree at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study in Arts-based Community Development and Civic Engagement. She is nearing completion on her thesis, which explores how community-based theatre organizations engaged in social change measure, evaluate, and discuss their impact, and the implications this has on funding practices. She is particularly interested in arts-based research and site-specific theatre projects. She is a proud alumnus of New York University’s program in Educational Theatre where she received the award for Outstanding Citizenship and Achievement in Educational Theatre.