by STEVEN LEIGH MORRIS
last week’s Stage Raw symposium on the economics of arts coverage, KCRW commentator Anthony Byrnes made a painfully sharp point that we, as a theater community, have failed in our ability to articulate the case for why we deserve public support.
We know why art matters. But for whatever reason, what’s obvious to us isn’t resonating beyond our own producing entities, out into the public arena where the audiences we crave live and breathe.
I won’t presume to come up with that articulation in one essay, other than through an allegory, but will suggest that among our downfalls is our repetition of truisms that somehow persuade us of the importance of what and why we create, but persuade fewer people beyond the sight-lines of our telescopes.
Back in 2011, in Washington D.C., Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s artistic director Howard Shalwitz came up with seven reasons for why theater improves our lives. The seven reasons are earnest and true and inspiring to those who create, but too easy for skeptics to pick apart. Example: “Theater does no harm” — contrasted against, say, waging war or engaging in domestic violence. This is mostly true. Notwithstanding the temporary psychic damage inflicted by some theater that overstays its welcome, theater generally does no harm, or little harm — but so does swimming, and growing tulips, and any number of benign activities unrelated to the arts.
“Theater brings people together” is another one. That’s also quite true. But people are also brought together by soccer matches, political rallies and public executions.
“Theater contributes to education and literacy,” sound like excellent arguments, and are frequently used in grant-writing. The drawback to those arguments is that if theater is defined in terms of its measurably proven social benefits — such as literacy or how it contributes to local economies — and if funding is contributed on those criteria, then theater becomes tethered to social agendas from which there’s no turning back. The art becomes a tool for literacy or the promotion of local businesses, rather than literacy and robust economies being among the positive outcomes of the productions we stage.
A company such as L.A. Poverty Department — which is dedicated to examining and improving the plight of the homeless — might not mind such attachments. They might not even regard them as attachments but as part of their mission. But that may not necessarily be the only reason why productions are created by the Boston Court Performing Arts Center, or The Industry, or The Colony Theatre, Anteaus Company, the Geffen Playhouse, Independent Shakespeare Company, Rogue Machine, Echo Theater Company, Theatre Unleashed, Zombie Joe’s Underground or Center Theatre Group.
These companies all create their art from differing impulses, and the key to the health of the community is that they continue creating, side-by-side, with the best actors and writers, directors and designers that they can find, for the various reasons that inspire them — whether it be to parody a 1980s sitcom, or to help build awareness of climate change or genocide, or homelessness, or to examine the shape of a poem.
Which is an argument for diversity, and not just ethnic diversity — the hot-button topic of the year — but aesthetic diversity too. A child can be as inspired and become a dedicated theater audience by having seen, as his or her first exposure to live theater, the seventeenth revival of Wicked or Phantom at the Pantages, just as easily as having participated in one of the excellent family workshops put on by Independent Shakespeare Company in Griffith Park, or some magical new play put on by Playwrights Arena or Boston Court.