Oct 12, 2012

A Theatre of One

If you are in the theatre and have had more that a few beers with me - and followed me down the rabbit hole of shop talk and pet theories - I have probably brought up my thoughts on the role of the Individual Artist in the Theatre.

In a nutshell, I believe one of the things (just one of many, actually) holding Theatre back from being as swiftly evolving as other art forms is that the collaborative nature that is instilled in young theatre artists inundates them with the notion that they are interpretive artists and ONLY interpretive artists. The notion that a designer, director, actor (or anyone besides a playwright) can instigate his or her own project seems to be one of those severely outsider ideas, like not needing corporate or government funding or questioning the very practice of selling subscriptions. 

My argument is, we need more artists in the theatre that think of themselves as creative artists -  as opposed to strictly interpretive artists - and who take personal responsibility for their art. We need less folks waiting to be handed projects. Less actors auditioning for whatever they can with no regard to how -  a particular role, in a particular play, put on by a particular theatre -  lines up with their own concepts of personal expression. 

Let me put it this way... I had a conversation with a wonderful actress friend of mine a few years back. Over coffee she made good-natured complaints about the many auditions she'd been to lately with little or no callbacks or other feedback. I asked what the plays and roles were. They were all over the map. I off-handily asked her what kind of acting she did and she looked at me puzzled. I asked her if she considered herself an Artist. She did. I asked, then, as an Artist, what did she want to say in the world? With her acting? Again, she was puzzled. I said the only outlet for whatever message she, personally, felt was important to stand for in the world, was in her choice of roles. Did she care about family values? The power of love? Outsiders and misfits trying to find identity and place (that's my bag...) or what? She said she'd never thought of herself, as an Actor, in those terms before. She "just wanted to perform."

I explained to my friend that artists in other art forms: singer-songwriters, painters, poets, novelists, sculptors, etc. all do their art because they have something to say, to express. If she considers herself a Theatre Artist, surely she has something to say.

Since I began widening my idea of a Theatre-Maker years ago to embrace all the specialities of the Theatre (playwright, performer, director, designer, producer, marketer, etc.) I have come across more and more colleagues who see themselves as merely collaborators. And not just collaborators, but the one in a collaboration who is approached, not the one that does the approaching. Certainly, part of this is from the way we are trained... to specialize. But part of it also has to do with not taking responsibility.

I have a friend who is unfulfilled as an Artist. He openly complains about his plight (usually over beers). No good plays to audition for. If he does audition, he doesn't get cast as often as he'd like. He is a wonderful performer and a budding playwright. I ask him from time to time why he doesn't just start making his own work, from scratch, for himself to create and perform? He openly admits that he doesn't want to be "saddled" with the responcibilities that come with producing, marketing, casting, etc. He would just rather act. Let someone else handle that "business-y"stuff. This is okay, but he will always be beholden to others for his artistic pursuits until he learns to take responsibility, full responsibility, for his Art.

If you are still reading this far, I thank you. I put forth the exposition above because I have come across various discussions related to this Myth of the Individual Artist lately.

Isaac Butler, an acquaintance and colleague over on his Parabasis blog discussed it recently. He is against the notion, but on different grounds. He doesn't address so much whether a Theatre Artist should aspire beyond merely interpretation, but he does imply that the collaborative, or collective is somehow more beneficial to art-making... "Innovation isn't everything. Groups matter."

He also makes the implicit assumption that an Individual Artist is also a selfish artist, not giving credit to his influences, competition, collaborators, audience or the market. I agree with his value judgement that this sort of selfishness is not beneficial to the field, but the argument falls down by acting on an unfounded (or at best, token) assumption to begin with.

I believe influences are important. I believe we all arrive at our own forms of novelty by absorbing and transforming the novelty that came before us, no matter from who or from where that comes. But ultimately the work of art should spring from that Individual Artist alone, reflecting an individual viewpoint of the world. A Theatre of One. In order for this idea to see the light of creation at all, the Individual Artist who birthed it must also raise it, take full responcibility for seeing the concept through to completion. If not he or she, then who?

In addition to Butler's blog, I was also led back to Kevin Kelly's excellent essay 1000 True Fans after bringing it up in conversation recently. It makes an excellent case for an Individual Artist who creates an idiosyncratic body of theatrical work and takes that work directly to the fans [audience] instead of working for hire and depending on (or feeding on) a theatre company's patron base. 

Lastly, the second installment, of three, of the movie version of Ayn Rand's ATLAS SHRUGGED is opening this weekend. PART I was really not a well-done movie. The second one looks to be a little better in quality, judging from the trailer, but a little heavier on the government-bad-unfettered-capitalism-good rhetoric. While my political views lean pretty center, maybe veering left, I have an affinity for Ayn Rand's work. At the core, I think Objectivism places great emphasis on individuality and personal responsibility. Similarly, I think Artists should make things, of value and idiosyncratic to their specific views... and we'll call these things Art.

Over the past year or so, I've begun to structure my theatre company Audacity Theatre Lab to allow for this sort of thing. Instead of the usual routine of a company working to create a unifying aesthetic, I leave the projects up to a group of individual artists each producing an individual body of work. Instead of the vague goal to "serve the community," I think a company should support and serve the Artist. The Theatre Artist, by creating his or her Art will, by default, be serving the community, for theatre is a public art form. The company is a catalyst for individual artists to support them in getting their work done. It is something they work through, not something they work for.

I'm not advocating ONLY doing instigative projects. I'm saying a Theatre Artist, like other kinds of artists, should have something personal to say and then step up and say it.

UPDATE 10/27/2012:
I just stumbled upon an article on HowlRound by Vanessa Garcia, Artistic Director of Florida's Krane Theatre. What I call the Individual or Initiating Artist she names the Hybrid Artist. It is refreshing to come across someone with similar ideas. The article is totally worth a read.

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