Theatrical Biodiversity

When I was a young poet, studying in what I now realize was an exceptionally rigorous writing program at Northwestern University, my professors tasked my fellow students and I with getting to know a small number of poets as well as we possibly could. Throughout the first semester, we read every poem ever written by Philip Larkin, Louise Bogan, Elizabeth Bishop, and a handful of others. We also read their biographies; we read criticism about their work; we wrote essays about their work; we listened to live recordings of the poets reading their own poems; we read their work aloud ourselves; and (most importantly) we even tried to imitate their styles. Our professors were demanding.

Studying their work so deeply was like being submerged in a pool of water: once I was under and opened my eyes, everywhere I looked, they were all I saw. An aged woman with a walker conjured Larkin’s “The Old Fools”; a piece of broiled salmon inspired a recitation of Bishop’s “The Fish.” It was a heady and vital experience. The world seemed to be infused with more significance than I’d ever known it to have. I felt as if my fellow students and I were walking around seeing things other people just couldn’t see… you know, in the smug way young people do. (I was barely 20 at the time.) I went on do to the same sort of thing with dozens of other poets (and novelists and essayists) throughout the remainder of my undergraduate and graduate education. It was the only way I knew how to learn. For the most part, it gave me great pleasure. I have relationships with certain writers that continue to mean a great deal to me, and I’m very grateful for that fact.

Did any of this make me a better writer? Time and reflection have taught me, I’m sorry to say, that very little of it made any difference whatsoever. What my education made me, more than anything, was a better reader. This is nothing to sneeze at, believe me, but it wasn’t (to resort to a crude commercial metaphor) what I paid for. I paid — or, rather, set out — to find my own voice, not to be drowned in the voices of others. In fact, that’s really all I’ve been doing since I left graduate school a few decades ago: finding, re-finding, tuning, and re-discovering what I sound like when I’m not under water.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about a related question that’s been put to me in several different ways over the last couple of years: what kind of “voice” do the playwrights in DC have? In several instances, the assumption — or is it the hope? — is that we’re all very political in our subject matter, but the fact is, we write about everything. (Very few of the people who live here, after all, are actually in politics.) In any event, my response is always the same: should we have a unified voice? Should the city’s playwrights all be writing in a particular style or genre? Should our work be characterized in some recognizable way? Why or why not? And I never get a satisfactory answer from anyone.

In considering that question, I’ve been thinking about ancient pottery: you know, the stuff anthropologists love to dig up. (My graduate professor Allen Grossman once said that the only surviving anthropological relics still used for their intended purposes were poems. You can’t expect an old Roman ewer to still hold water, after all.) Specifically, I’m thinking about Native American pottery, which during the year-and-a-half I lived in Boulder I used to admire now and then. Although to the un-tutored eye — as mine was at first — much of it looks quite similar, there are distinct markings that make it possible to identify with certain which tribes painted which pieces. There was, in fact, an Ancient Pueblo (for example) “voice” in pottery that was distinct in important ways. So why shouldn’t there be a DC voice in playwriting?

The obvious response: things are different now. The Ancient Pueblo people lived in relative isolation. Their art was made of the stuff of their culture — symbols, images, vocabulary, ideas — because they only had their culture (and other nearby cultures) to work with. and they learned how to make art from people they knew: specifically, by watching and learning how to make art they were already familiar with. There were modifications, of course, from generation to generation, but unless something radically significant happened to influence the culture, the art remained largely the same… and distinct from every other culture’s art.

We, on the other hand, live as citizens of the world. We make art inspired by 17th century Japanese historical figures and political conflict in the Kentucky state legislature and epidemiology, from ideas and images and vocabulary that originate all over the world. And we learn not from our neighbors and peers, not from within our own culture, but from the artists and art to which we’re commonly exposed… most of which comes from a few major urban centers around the country.

In the same way that all the corn we eat in America now comes from a small number of genetic strains owned by a small number of huge agribusinesses, we now experience theater made largely by artists from a small number of graduate programs who live in a small number of huge cities. We now make plays with one national “voice,” or perhaps (though I can’t distinguish them myself) a small number of voices. We have lost, or may be at least losing, our artistic biodiversity.

And to be clear: that’s bad for a lot of reasons. My particular favorite: a mono-culture (either agricultural or artistic) is vulnerable. If a new pest or blight emerges to which the one predominant strain of a crop is vulnerable, we all starve. What then might happen to the American theater, then, if it’s threatened by a similar pest or blight? Or has it already? Has the accessibility and quality and ubiquity of television and film, for example, turned theater into a “gourmet” entertainment that only a few well-heeled diners can afford to consume? (Pick one: yes or almost but not quite yet.) Because the next step from there, let’s be clear, is extreme, irreversible irrelevance.

(Oh, and by the way? Making theater more like film and television isn’t a nifty way to survive, though it does seem to be what so many of us have been trying. In fact, you know what it is? It’s proof of the genetic superiority of the new strain of entertainment. The theater has become one of those rare moths that survives merely by imitating a poisonous and more genetically-successful butterfly in its markings so as to avoid detection and mostly go unnoticed. Yes: the evolutionary road to obscurity.)

The other less obvious side effect of a mono-culture is the lack of genetic — or, in this case, artistic — diversity. When we lived in a world with thousands and thousands and thousands of slightly (or even greatly) different strains of corn, there was an infinite amount of information and possibility and potential contained in all those genetic codes: new life forms awaiting only a few mutations to arrive in our evolutionary future just when we need them. The more diversity we have in our art form, meanwhile, gives us an infinite number of ways in which we can create and use theater to respond to the moments in which we will live. We need to keep as wide an array of imaginative possibility alive in our culture as we can.

So how do we do that? I’m honestly not sure that I know how we get from here to there (though I’m going to suggest a few ideas below), but I think I do know what there looks like. I’m pretty sure that in a healthy theatrical ecosystem, one that doesn’t suffer from the weaknesses of a mono-culture, at least 33% of the plays on our stages every season will be — to use the term I first heard employed in theatrical parlance by Theater J — completely locally grown. That is to say: drafted, developed, directed, designed, dramaturged, and done by people who live and work within a reasonable distance — let’s say 100 miles, since that’s the locavore standard — of the audience members who are going to engage with it.

And maybe 33% isn’t enough. Should it be 50%? I don’t know. But one-third is a start. Right now in DC — a theatrical community that’s considered fairly healthy, nationwide — we’re at about half that level. (My rough calculation is 15%.) New York, Chicago, and likely LA are almost certainly higher than that, but the rest of the country? Is St. Louis — just to pick a city at random — even close? What about Mankato, MN, or Decorah, IA? What about places even smaller than that? I’m not making a claim here, mind you; I’m making a guess. But my guess is the numbers don’t look good.

But let me make one more qualification about the environmental cure for our mono-culture problem. See, I don’t think it’s enough that the plays we put on our stages be made by people who live in our communities. I think they need to be made for the people in our communities, too, if we’re really going to get anywhere. Locally grown has to mean more than “grown by local farmers,” in other words. It has to mean “grown with an awareness of local conditions,” too. What does that mean, exactly? It means, I think, that we really have to know the nature of the soil in which we’re planting stories. The weather patterns, the state of the water table, and so on. Less metaphorically, it means that we need to write plays that wrestle with the everyday concerns and the specific interests and particular longings of our audiences. We need to understand our neighbors — to be among them, to be members of our communities — in order to give them what they need. (Which is not the same as what they want. We all want doughnuts; we do not need doughnuts.) We need to start writing for the family next door, not for a nameless artistic director in Manhattan.

If we did that — if we really did wholeheartedly embrace locally grown theater nationwide — I think we might actually start to develop distinct voices, city by city and perhaps region by region. Whether we want to admit it or not, whether we’re aware of it or not, we are influenced (as artists) by the art we experience ourselves. If more of the plays we experienced, day in and day out, were locally grown, we’d create work in conversation with our fellow artists… and if that conversation was tuned to a local audience, especially if the members of that audience were invited to join in on that conversation, and our work began to respond to that response… you can see where I’m going, I think. Our work would evolve the way the finches on Galapagos — isolated from mainland finches — began to evolve: independently. And soon enough, that voice would emerge.

Of course, complete Galapagos-level isolation isn’t what anyone’s asking for, nor would it be healthy. (If a population is too small, you end up with inbreeding… and then you get deformities. Or you just die out.) That’s why I peg the ideal percentage of locally grown plays at less than 100%. We need our gene pool — or, rather, our “meme pool” — to be regularly infused with new material. Again, speaking less metaphorically, we need outsiders’ perspectives about the rest of the world: heck, even on our own little corner of the ecosystem. We need to think bigger, broader thoughts; we need to look outside ourselves; we need to encounter and wrestle with and eventually embrace the other. We can’t, in short, make all our own theater ourselves.

In fact, let’s return for a second to the 100-mile distance that helps define the “local” part of “locally grown.” Agriculturally, the distance has to do with shipping; the farther a rutabaga has to travel, for example, the greater the negative implications for the environment. Theatrically, however, the implication might be that artists from neighboring cities and regions might easily collaborate with one another, but influences from far afield would be minimized somewhat. So we wouldn’t be putting up walls around each region: we’d be establishing what the biologists call semi-permeable membranes between them in order to regulate what gets in and what gets out. In effect, if we embraced a locally grown cultural development approach, the American theatrical ecosystem would become less of a top-down hierarchical structure controlled by centralized authorities and more of a distributed network of peers. Just like, oh, everything else that’s succeeding in the world at the moment. (See Steven Johnson, Future Perfect.)

So… okay… nuts-and-bolts time. How do we make this happen? How do we drain the water out of the pool, let individual regions develop distinct voices, make plays that are less like television and film, and save the theatrical ecosystem from a dramatic loss of biodiversity? To be honest, I don’t have a comprehensive plan to offer. It feels daunting, in fact, in the same way that saving the planet from climate change feels daunting: too many variables to change, too many moving pieces. At the same time, the stakes seem so terribly high that to do nothing feels tremendously irresponsible…

So rather than try to elucidate a comprehensive plan, I’m going to start thinking and writing about various ideas here on this blog. For now, though, I want to assert one thing: we need to embrace a more locally-grown approach. We need less theater on our stages that’s been pre-approved by a visit to NY. We need to be cultivating artists in our own cities and regions. We need to tune our creativity to our local audiences: to make our work relevant to our immediate friends and neighbors. (Specificity like that is the MOST likely way we’re going to differ from — and thus capture audiences from — television and film.) Above all else, we need to stop studying and emulating the artists and artwork that have been pre-selected for us by the current top-down system. Choose your own inspirations; find your own voice. The future of our art form might depend on it.

19 thoughts on “Theatrical Biodiversity”

  1. Great post. You get an AMEN from me.

    You describe my experience with theatre. I got asked to write a local-history play for Parkway Playhouse, whose slogan is “Locally Grown North Carolina Theatre,” and that started it for me. I never would have gotten into writing plays if it hadn’t been for the AD tapping me on the shoulder and giving me the chance. Now, I’m hooked. I’m guessing a third or more of Parkway’s plays each year are world premieres by local writers.

    I’ve really been giving some thought to my “dangerous idea” — and then you expound upon it in your very next post. Regardless, here it is: there is room for me, a rural, isolated playwright who doesn’t know anyone in the biz. Even more dangerous, I can write great things despite and because of that. Though stated more humbly, being great “for here” is good enough.

    1. That is TERRIFIC. And I would LOVE to hear more about your dangerous idea, Tell us what it’s like for you to be connected to and to write for your community! I’d love to share your story with my readers.

  2. TBH, if I wanted to read plays by or about NYC, I’d, y’know, go to NYC. And I’m saying that as someone who lived to NYC because I loved it and not just because it looks good on my resume.

    The issues you’re having with the DC theatre scene are many of the same ones I’m seeing here in Richmond.

    I had more thoughts, but I wanted to respond to this because I’ve been meaning to for a bit.

      1. It’s VERY small when it comes to theatre, and all theatre activity tends to revolve around a few institutional clusters. I suppose you could say the same about theatre everywhere, but coming from NYC, where there’s theatre of all kinds everywhere, it’s pretty jarring that my own hometown has so little to offer in that regard.

          1. I had to sit on this one for a while because my answer may surprise you.

            Frankly, I’m tired of being expected to make something out of nothing, and I’m tired of beating my head against the wall. Richmond is where I’m from, but that is not where I would like to make my home. To pretend otherwise, I think, would be a tremendous waste of time and energy on my part.

            I’d rather spend my time around fellow artists (like the ones I came to know in NYC) who are already on board with the fact that we need to make theatre in from an anti-racist community organizing framework.

            Richmond, unfortunately, does not yet have the critical mass to make even broaching the subject worthwhile.

    1. YES. I do have great admiration for Seattle on this front. I’ve been following as much as I can — not only on your blog, but elsewhere — and I know there are bright spots to be cloned there for sure!

      Thanks for the props, Paul. You’re awesome.

  3. Great post Gwydion! What do you think the role of the internet can be in terms of developing local culture and arts communities? One quick example I can think of in theater is how #2amt as a national, global online community was able to get various cities’ theater locals together for in-person socializing. I’m sure local artistic collaborations were born from that.

    1. This is a TERRIFIC question, because after all the internet is 100% locally grown. Individual content creators build websites, and they’re all linked directly to the same traffic framework, which operates NOT on a spoke-and-hub model (like we currently do in the theater — NY being the hub, for the most part, and the rest of us being spokes) but on a distributed peer network model (which is what I’m proposing).

      I may have just lost half my readers. Sigh…

      To answer your question more directly, I do believe there are manifold ways in which the internet can and will help develop local culture and arts communities. I’ve seen early iterations of the right kinds of platforms in DC: one Facebook group connecting the city’s playwrights and another connecting independent/small theater makers, a hashtag for local-centric Twitter conversations, and Google+ chats for quick-and-dirty meet-ups, just to name a few.

      On the other hand, I don’t believe a national initiative like #2amt should be convening local theater-makers. I think it has a national focus, and it should. (Same, of course, for you good people at Arts Emerson.) We need to do it ourselves; yes, we can infuse our local culture with the things we learn from a national conversation… but we need to put local first, lest it get lost.

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  5. Northwestern couldn’t possibly be pleased to have a writer claim its program is “exceptionally rigorous” when, in the same sentence, he writes, “my professors tasked my fellow students and I”.

    1. And I suppose your professors are so proud to see that you’ve failed to place your punctuation inside your quotation marks.

      Please: if you have something valuable to contribute to the conversation, I’d love to hear it. If you have only snark: keep it to yourself.

    2. Also: “He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreck that hate upon him.” — Melville, Moby Dick

  6. An analog for “locally-grown” is “terroir”. Wines used to be identified by chateau, emphasizing the local conditions and history which gave unique character. With globalization came varietals, wines are identified by consumers by grape species ( Chardonnay, Malbec) grown or blended anywhere. “Terroir is a composite of many physical factors… as well as more
    intangible cultural factors. Matt Kramer once very poetically defined
    terroir as “somewhere-ness,” and this I think is the nub of the issue. I
    believe that “somewhereness” is absolutely linked to beauty, that
    beauty reposes in the particulars…”

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