Institutions Do Not Define Our Artistic Practice

Institutions do not define our art.

Like many of us, I am an artist who has defined my artistic career by the institutions that granted me entry. This quarantine is causing them to suffer, which is causing my colleagues and mentors and teachers to suffer. In this moment of tremendous uncertainty, where the future of these institutions is unstable, it feels like our future is too.

Meanwhile, content is pouring from every corner of the world as artists are expressing the portions of themselves that cannot be contained. It is beautiful to me that artists want to continue to create with each other, demonstrate well-earned skills, and remind us we have value. It is important to note that value, in this digital medium, almost always equates to a finished product.

Why do we feel the need to create artistic products for the digital sphere? The apparent necessity to produce seems to be in direct relationship to the fact that most essential artistic institutions are required to produce in order to exist. 

I argue that, for artists, entertainment is a byproduct. We are meant to investigate the deepest questions of humanity and return to show you what we’ve found. This product, or the performance, is meant to be the culmination of a collective group meditation on an essential question. Economic pressures on our industry have reduced that impulse to rehearsing a product to be sold.

Rehearsal, as my mentor Ron OJ Parson says, is where one “re hears all.” Another mentor of mine, Daniel Alexander Jones, speaks often of the act of “re-membering” in their work. “Re-membering” is, at its core, the political act of remembering your / humanity’s true nature. Theatre is the medium we have chosen to reflect accepted truths of society and ask why they are so.

It is in the actor’s character work, the director’s perspective, the scenic designer’s world building, the dramaturg’s questioning that we meditate on the question that drives the world we’re building. Hamlet’s meditation on “to be or not to be” is not a telling of a story but an invitation to the artistic company and the audience to answer the question for themselves.  

Rehearsal is the art. The product is the performance.

We have forgotten that as artists we are philosophers, questioners, idealists, and world-builders. Those that do remember often struggle to be produced. It is understandable that in a world that values territory and colonialism, we would think the only way to “legitimize” our art is to establish our own colonies. Artists have thus established institutional colonies to preserve their economic safety.

In this moment of coronavirus and national despondence, we are understanding the many ways colonization has harmed and distorted our values. Specifically in theatre, one dominant aspect of colonization takes the form of buildings and structures. These structures have ballooned in value to supersede the value of the people who perform and work in them. Funding models and strategic plans have been structured around the importance of land to call our own.

We see the consequences of this value system as artists struggle to pay rent while companies lay off their employees but continue to own vacant buildings. Institutions are like large ships, they take some time to turn. If you have spent decades telling your donors that the buildings are more important than operations costs, it is almost impossible to turn the ship in the direction of valuing people if you’ve never stressed their importance to funders before.

Early on in my career it was obvious to me that institutions meant salaries and security. I began as a performer and then turned to a career as an artistic director. Before this crash, a hot topic in Chicago theatre was whether or not  Artistic Directors were necessary personnel at their institutions. A position previously described to me by my forebears as constant was suddenly endangered because the person who is tasked with stewarding the artistic future of the company might be economically unnecessary. Having worked under no less than 8 brilliant artistic directors at theatres of all levels, I know that often these folks are working insurmountable hours with the smallest departments in the building. An artistic director’s job is to create a vision for the company, find the artists who compliment it best, and advocate for their vision for their project. How is it possible this person can be non-essential?

Coronavirus didn’t create this economic scarcity; it only enhanced it. As artists, nationally, we find ourselves collectively unmoored. The institutions we have sunk so much of our sweat, tears, blood, and sometimes limbs and appendages — I’m not joking — have all but abandoned us because they could not save themselves.

It is not enough for our top twenty percent to earn the fellowships, the residencies and grants,  or the employment needed to survive as an artist.  I have been a beneficiary of and advocate for such programs. I have tremendous respect for the soldiering those folks have done, but we cannot leave it up to them alone. As artists, as human beings, we deserve to not just survive, but thrive.

It is our duty to take this time to create a radically hospitable vision for theatre that values all of its artists.

 A true gift of this time has been the opportunity to connect with the minds that inspire me most. The confidence it has given me in our future is a fire that cannot be quenched. The most brilliant questions and the most pure practice of theatre originate in the minds of its creators. I encourage you to think about why you chose your medium, founded your company, wrote your first play, etc. Return to your source. The only thing that cannot be taken from you is your time and your will: to live, to create, to relate.

Produce and make what brings you joy, we are grateful for your presence. Just know that there is equal value in perfecting the practice of being exactly who you are. These acts are not mutually exclusive. Your understanding of yourself, and the time you spend envisioning and questioning, will only enrich your art, and therefore the world around youThere are so many reasons to create, and institutional pressure to provide product, or “staying relevant” does not have to be among them. You chose a lifelong practice of unlocking the deepest secrets of humanity, and right now, time is on your side. 

Photo: The Hagens. Workshop presentation of Marie Antoinette and the Magical Negroes written by Terry Guest directed by Regina Victor, produced by The Story Theatre in residence at Raven Theatre. L-R, Breon Arzell, Darrionna Barnes, Lewon Johns, Darian Tene, Melissa DuPrey 

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