We Come After

by Isaac Butler

in National Conference

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(This post is part of the blog salon curated by Jacqueline E. Lawton for the 2015 TCG National Conference: Game ChangeThe following questions will inform the final plenary session, “Artistic Leadership: How We Change the Game.”)

JACQUELINE LAWTONWhat was the most game-changing production you’ve seen or created, and why?

ISAAC BUTLER: One production is hard. But I will say no single director has inspired me more than Simon McBurney. The way he approaches storytelling and the possibilities of the stage is both deeply sincere and remarkably innovative. He also might be the most adept director at translating a cinematic storytelling vocabulary to the stage. His work is wonderful, funny and moving and smart. Seeing The Elephant Vanishes at Lincoln Center and then having him come speak to my class at the Directors Lab was a really game-changing experience, like reading David Foster Wallace for the first time.

McBurney’s work is so great because it’s fun, and showy, and smart and all of those things, but it is also deeply researched and extremely rigorous. He thinks through these bold conceptual decisions in very granular ways. And all of it comes from close reading the text and research. There’s nothing empty about his spectacle, and the audience always comes away with a thicker understanding of the show and the world.

JL: Who was the most game-changing theatre leader/artist you’ve met, and what do you carry forward from their example?

IB:  Joy Zinoman came into my life at a time when I was in a lot of trouble. I was twelve years old, I wanted to be an actor, I was bullied at school, miserable pretty much all the time, etc. Joy cast me in Falsettoland and demanded that I act like an adult and a professional, and that changed my life completely. Joy Zinoman taught me how to break down a text, the fundamentals of staging, how to run a room. I would never have worked in theater as an adult, or been a director, were it not for her. The traditionalist side of me, both in terms of aesthetics and envisioning what a director is, comes from her.

As a theater leader, she was this force of nature—she’s retired, but she still is a force of nature—and ran The Studio Theatre, which she had founded as an acting school, through sheer will. Not only was she both Artistic and Managing director, but she pulled into her orbit the people she needed to help her take the Studio to another level, and then another, and then another.

Most inspiring to me: she found a way to build The Studio that was sustainable and didn’t compromise her artistic mission. Originally, they had one 200-seat venue and a smaller, flexible second stage that was really just in a big room. By the time they were done with all of their capital campaigns and building, they had three 200-seat spaces and a larger, more technically advanced room for second stage. They did this deliberately so that the kinds of plays they did and the way they did them wouldn’t change. As a result, they avoided mission creep and, in years in which almost every theater in DC was in the red, showed a surplus. It’s remarkable.

JL: What is the most significant opportunity—or challenge—facing the theatre field, and how can we address it together?

IB: To quote the O’jays… Money money money money … MUH-NAY. The theater field has never been adequately funded. When it was seeded by the Ford Foundation, the idea was that the Government would swoop in with a great deal of money and help create and support the regional theater system. This never happened to the extent that it was supposed to, and we’ve been plate-spinning ever since.

What is needed now, what is both our biggest challenge and opportunity, is reforming funding incentives so that they actually meet the needs of the field and reflect the principles we espouse. To put it in concrete terms, how do we spend more money on people and art and less money on fancy buildings to house them? This is a very complicated problem, more complicated than people want to admit. We have to reform funding guidelines, government regulation, how we view success, what donors want to contribute to, etc.

It is vital that we do this. The current system is untenable. The highest likely wage an actor makes Off-Broadway is $900/wk before taxes and agent fees, and that’s only when they’re lucky enough to actually be working in a house large enough to hit that minimum. We keep losing playwrights to Hollywood because they can make more money writing a half hour sitcom that is ordered to pilot but never picked up than they can on a play that has a few regional productions a year for five years. Directors are at an extremely vulnerable place right now. Their skills don’t port to television or film, they’re easy to replace on a project, they can’t work on more than one show at once, the staff jobs that used to go to them go to dramaturgs or career administrators, and there’s very few professional development opportunities or grants unless they position themselves as auteurs.  And that’s not even getting into the problems of student loan debt!

Meanwhile, theater after theater has built state of the art, extremely expensive facilities. Often, the expense of continuing to run these new buildings creates an operating cost spiral, which then leads to ever-more-desperate programming decisions and higher ticket prices. Beyond my own perhaps ideological ideas of what a theater should be and do, this is not a practical or sustainable way to do business. Studies show, for example, that building a new building will indeed lead to an influx of subscribers and donors, but that they tend to then abandon the theater after a few years, leaving them without the base necessary to meet new costs.  All of this has grave impact on other important issues, such as diversity and aesthetics, both of which are deeply important to our future.

The theaters that solve this particular puzzle will be the leaders of the next generation.

JL: What is the most significant challenge—or opportunity—facing the world, and what difference can theatre make?

IB: Is anyone going to give an answer here other than climate change? Or maybe global pandemics?

The most significant challenge currently facing the world is catastrophic climate change brought on by human activity, and I’m not really sure there’s any difference that theatre can make there, other than to reform its own practices to be as green as possible.

As I get older, I get a bit skeptical of the myths we’ve all constructed about the arts enriching our humanity, making us better people, making the world a better place. Beyond the obvious—many artists we know are terrible people—we have history to guide us.

I think a lot about this quote from George Steiner’s Language and Silence:

We come after. We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning. To say that he has read them without understanding or that his ear is gross, is cant. In what way does this knowledge bear on literature and society, on the hope, grown almost axiomatic from the time of Plato to that of Matthew Arnold, that culture is a humanizing force, that the energies of spirit are transferable to those of conduct?

The most notorious concentration camp guards in Nazi Germany were classical music lovers. Oliver Messiaen was able to compose some of his greatest works while living in a Nazi POW camp, because the guards loved music so much.

The inventors of the art form we all practice—the men who gave us so much from plays to epic poems to the philosophical foundation of democracy—were all pederasts. They existed in a system that legitimized and institutionalized serial child rape and disenfranchised all women, who were viewed as not even really having a self or an ability to consent (or to refuse) to sex.

Some of the artists and forms we most associate with individuality, independence, forward-thinking aesthetics here in America were funded, supported, and marketed by the CIA working through various front groups, including the Ford Foundation, the very people who gave the seed money to found the regional theater movement.  Then, for decades, Philip Morris heavily funded art of all forms—especially the performing arts—all over the country. Our illustrious, ennobling art was funded by actual cancer for decades.

Zelda Fischandler, in arguing to congress that theaters should be given tax exempt status argued that, in her own paraphrasing, “theatre [is] an instrument of education – e-ducere, to lead forth – from not-seeing to seeing; not-knowing to knowing; from darkness into light.” No one looking at the history of the United States, particularly in terms of foreign policy, could honestly say that we’ve journeyed from darkness into light. Nor could we say that Shakespeare and his contemporaries moved their society from darkness into light.

And yet. If Steiner was the generation that comes after, we’re the generation that comes after the generation that comes after. So what remains for us to do?

We are practitioners of the most human of art forms, the only one that positions both outward behavior and internality in a three dimensional space, inviting creator and observer to come together in a moment that cannot be repeated.  We practice the most complete art form, the one that absorbs all others into its totality.

So the answer to what do we do has to be we try anyway. Why bother doing this otherwise? We could all make more money doing almost anything else. There are other ways to get famous.

And besides, we did promise the American people we’d try. That’s how we got the tax breaks our entire system is dependent on, and I’d like to think we are people of our word.

The question then becomes what does trying look like? What does it mean to see the nonprofit status as more than a business model, and to see it instead as a system of promises and obligations to serve the public good? What does it mean do look at a mission statement as more than marketing language? What does it mean to place the human (and the humane) at the center of our artistic and business practices? What does it mean to move through the world and through this often very tough and frustrating business as generously as possible?

These are very difficult questions, and in lots of ways I see us all puzzling this out in real time, together, knowing that every city, community, theater, artist is different and has its own needs. But I want us all—and I include myself in this—to try harder to ask those questions and to think about them, and to rely a little bit less on piousness about this art form we all practice.


Isaac Butler is a freelance writer and theater director. His blog, Parabasis, has been featured in The Guardian, the Wall Street Journal, Time Out New York, Time Out Chicago and the New York Times, and he served on Barack Obama’s Arts Policy Committee in 2008. His writing has appeared in American TheatreTime Out New YorkNarrativelyHooded UtilitarianSlate, and others. His latest project is Real Enemies, a meditation on postwar paranoia and conspiracy theories, co-created with Peter Nigrini and Darcy James Argue for BAM Next Wave 2015.


conf13_jacqueline_lawtonJacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena. jacquelinelawton.com