The Year in Review and Some Lessons Relearned.

Your work is never about you–it’s your job, that’s all. And just like any job, you show up, do your best to complete the tasks before you and go home to your personal and private life.

These two things don’t go together: personal worth and professional output (work). They are separate and if you try to blend, meld or otherwise confuse them for each other you will suffer that most awful of clichés–the mad, crazy artist–and most likely make a mess of your life.

The marketplace is made up of fickle buyers, subjective critics, jealous competitors, and a particular phenomenon called time. All of which is unreal and unrelated to your value as a person. Hold dear those who exhibit sanity and respect for the truth in their work and in your own: these are treasured friends and colleagues.

Martha Graham, dancer and choreographer Deutsc...

Martha Graham, dancer and choreographer Deutsch: Martha Graham 1948 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From Martha Graham: “The critic thinks he is giving me to the public. He is not.

He’s giving his idea of me to the public. It can be harmful. It can be helpful. But it has never influenced me.”

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Your heart on your sleeve…

Homeless man in Anchorage, Alaska

Homeless man in Anchorage, Alaska (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s four days before Christmas.There’s a man outside my window standing in the rain  holding a cardboard sign on which is written the all too familiar words, “Homeless. Please help. Will accept random acts of kindness.” He’s been outside my apartment for the past four Fridays with his sign and his sleeping bag and his backpack and his vulnerability.

It takes courage to admit you’re vulnerable. To express your needs, your dreams, your hopes to the world. I watch for hours how people respond. It’s often women who stop and talk with him, slip some money in his hand, or bring him soup or coffee. Mostly, people walk past him trying to avoid bumping into him or looking in his eyes. I don’t have anything to give him: a room, a bed, a meal, a buck.

It’s so difficult for us to fully embrace how we are vulnerable all the time. Our government has just decided to spend 633 billion dollars on defense. Yet we cannot decide if taking care of the poor, the elderly, the sick, the mentally impaired, the environment is worth it. We’re still debating about who will pay for these things and how much. But defending ourselves… well, now, that’s our priority. Coincidence? I don’t think so. We can’t bear the thought that we’re just a mass of plasma; mortal, vulnerable and susceptible to any number of dangers.

I’m an actor, a director, a playwright and a poet. I’m part of that unsupported mass of the population that’s right down there with the homeless, the infirm, the elderly and the rest. The poor.

But I know at least one immutable thing from my profession: every night when I go out on stage, perhaps, or when I submit a poem to a magazine, I’m reminded of how much in every aspect of my life as a human being I’m vulnerable. There’s no guarantee I’ll make enough money to feed, clothe, house myself, or that I will achieve any dream, hope, or fulfill any need beyond surviving. I don’t mean to be flippant. I’m not vulnerable in the same way as the homeless man outside my window. Not exactly, at this moment. He’ll sleep in the woods tonight and I’m here in my barely furnished apartment writing. At any one time, there are differences in vulnerability between all of us. But make no mistake: we are all of us vulnerable no matter how well we defend ourselves.

English: A homeless man in New York with the A...

English: A homeless man in New York with the American flag in the background. Français : Un homme sans domicile fixe à New York. Un drapeau des États-Unis est visible en arrière plan. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a few weeks, I’ll set off on a journey in my old clunky automobile; a journey determined by my body’s need for a warmer climate with more sunshine, and with the hope of finding a community of like-minded artists who recognize that our vulnerability, our basic humanity, our willingness to wear our heart on our sleeve is one of our greatest strengths and gifts.

If you know of such a group and such a place, I’m “Homeless. Please help. Will accept random acts of kindness.”

Practical versus Philosophical

whoa

whoa (Photo credit: stgermh)

So I was talking with a friend and she was asking about this whole theatre thing, you know, staring a theatre company and she said, “How’re you gonna raise the money?” And all  of a sudden I’m havin’ this massive anxiety attack and I’m sweating and my heart’s racing and then I’m like in a fever transported back to Neanderthal times like as this guy like named Throg and I’m like Whoa! Who am I? And then I remember, Oh, I’m Throg and I got to get some food for my tribe, you know, like, my babes and shit and I think, Whoa! When did art become such a luxury that food and clothing and shelter took precedence? And then it hit me, like, Whoa! How did this schism between art and practicality begin? And I’m thinking like it was like at the beginning of time when we were transmogrifying from amphibian to ape to humanoid and suddenly the first human said, “I get how we get food and how we make shelter and how we make clothing because I can see that, but this art thing is really mysterious and I don’t get what that Shaman dude is doin’ because it’s invisible but I like it, in fact I need these cave paintings about those wildebeests and stuff but I don’t like what I can’t see or name or touch…

And that was how art became dissociated from practical human experience and made into a non-essential on the town tax referendum, on the IRS list of non-deductible expenses, and since then Man hasn’t bothered to correct this oversight since what we’re talkin’ about is invisible stuff like creativity and art anyway so who gives a… but, seriously… I think that Throg and his buddies decided that anything that wasn’t related to the 5 senses wasn’t significant enough to matter anyhow… What do you think? Isn’t this fun?

English: The logo of The Practical Theatre Company

English: The logo of The Practical Theatre Company (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What We Do Together Is As Important As What We Do On Stage

English: An audience in His Majesty's Theatre ...

English: An audience in His Majesty’s Theatre in Perth, Western Australia, in 1932. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We come together in a darkened room—theatre artists and audience—to tell a story and in that process we discover, play with, and experience those things that make us human: virtues and vices, the ugly and beautiful, the good and bad—all of it. By theatre artists, I mean everyone involved in the production of a theatrical event. No exceptions!

But that process takes shape long before the 1st rehearsal or the 1st performance. It starts with how this group of theatre artists behaves, what they think and feel, and how they relate to each other. It’s organic and inclusive. It goes on from there to include an audience, which encounters parts of themselves that otherwise might remain closed off, ignored, or even avoided.

Sometimes that means we tell stories that ridicule, laugh at, deride, or otherwise poke fun at our hilarious attempts to try to connect or not connect with one another.

Sometimes our attempts to connect or not connect with one another are dramatic, even tragic, and we tell stories about those experiences, too. We might present a world where love doesn’t occur, cannot exist, and the consequences of living in that world: loss, grief, pathos, etc…

In our darkened room, we create a world in which the audience can project their needs and wants onto actors moving about on a stage in order to see and feel and know themselves. We create a world in which theatre artists and audience connect in a present moment experience of human relationship. The key here is presence. We must all be present in order for this organic process to be fully realized. The more present we are, the more effective the story is.

It’s because of the magic of theatre that this can occur. It’s up to each individual to make meaning of his or her experience. Our job as theatre artists begins with the preparation and ends with the invitation to that experience.

So, how do we prepare to be present, then be present, then invite others into the present moment and let go of the outcome? We use all the tools and discipline of our craft, art, and profession. We train our bodies, minds, hearts and emotions to be ready, open, agile, and healthy both as individual artists and as an ensemble of theatre artists in a cooperative company. It’s an evolving process that requires attunement and attention on many levels.

Once upon a time, I worked in a mental hospital as an intake clinician. On nights when the staff, for whatever reason, was out of sorts, the patients developed a reaction that was almost predictable: they got crazier. They reflected the dysfunctions of the staff. I’ll never forget that experience. Some of our worst nights were the ones where staff members treated each other badly. The reasons why are less significant than how we remedied the situation: we recognized the importance of cooperation, resolved with dignity and respect our differences, and suddenly the patients became calmer, functional, and more responsive.

I want to co-create and be a part of a worker owned cooperative theatre company that understands that what we do together is as important as what we do on stage in front of an audience. This simple vision is not new and certainly not revolutionary, but I believe it’s timely. I want to be part of a company of theatre artists who are a model for how we can be as a society. Sustainable, egalitarian, cooperative, just, honest and dynamic. Let me know your thoughts.

Why create a worker-owned cooperative theatre company?

This is what I mean by a worker-owned Cooperative Theatre Company: “A cooperative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.”

In the typical hierarchical system led by an artistic director and a board, artists defer responsibility for their economic needs in order to focus on the artistic or cultural ones. Actors just want to act. Directors just want to direct. Technical staff simply want to do their jobs, get paid, and like the actors and directors, go on to the next job with little or no connection to the whole process that is involved in producing a show beyond the scope of their individual role and the tasks assigned to them.

While this “top-down” structure and compartmentalization of labor might seem efficient, even cost effective (the boss—in this case the artistic director—bears most of the burdens of labor and reaps most of the benefits), it depends upon a set of strengths and fosters certain weakness that are now glaringly evident in our economic system: the many are ruled by the few.

If a business fails—it’s the boss’ fault: we fire him or her and get another. If a business is successful—we reward the boss with bonuses and tell the workers they’ve done a great job!

But what if our business as a theatre company were a level playing field? What if everyone had the opportunity to meet his or her common needs voluntarily and democratically?

I want to be a part of and co-create a company where a core group of professional have the opportunity to make decisions about their economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations democratically. A company where artists who want to hire on as employees may do so, but if they wish to be more intimately and democratically involved in the day-to-day operations and processes of the theatre, they may also do so. And I intend to design and organize this theatre company—with the help of like-minded individuals—around these ideals and principles.

Why, you might ask, try to change a model of organization that has been around for a long time and seems to work?

Well, the answer is both personal and professional. After decades of working with theatre companies as an artistic director and a consultant, an actor and a director, I have come to believe that what we create as a company is exactly what the audience gets—all of it—in our performances. That these two phenomena are inextricably linked: how we interact backstage and how we interact on stage.

If we are to be true to our mission statements, we must practice what we preach not only in the professional side of our lives, for example: the shows we chose to present, but also in the personal side of our lives, by how we relate to one another and the ways in which we organize ourselves as a company.

The old model that says “I have an idea and I’m going to find a group of workers to carry out my idea” is no longer interesting to me, nor do I think it’s viable in a truly democratic society. It ultimately leads to factionalism and a division of labor, which is divisive and destructive.

The old model is egocentric and pits one person in competition with another for our basic human needs. Everyday—in the current system—there are thousands of unemployed artists forced to compete with each other for a small portion of the available resources in order to meet these needs. By working cooperatively, we can not only change that situation, we can also teach (through modeling) our audiences how to live in a world where all humans have the right to meet their basic needs. And isn’t that one of the central roles of artists in any society?

We come to a theatre, a darkened room specifically designed to foster a fantastical reality, to tell stories. That is essentially what we are doing as professionals and that is what our audiences come to experience: stories about people who either get along or don’t get along and why. I want to deepen our storytelling to include new and re-visioned ways of being together. And I want to start from the inside out. From how we relate as individuals in a company to how we relate professionally to our audiences. It’s an organic process—this organization I’m envisioning—and therefore has a life of its own. I’m looking for a place to plant the seeds of this company and some folks who want to be a part of it and help it grow. In order for it to take root and grow, it has to be shared by, nurtured by a group of like-minded individuals who feel the same calling. I trust that if this is something you’re interested in, you’ll respond.

 

Worker-owned Co-operative Theatre Company

Warehouse

Warehouse (Photo credit: Pete Zarria)

It’s official! I’m moving to California! And for a number of reasons, I wanted to let you know.

What, you might wonder, prompted this sudden plan for a change of coasts? It isn’t sudden: for four years I’ve been slogging away trying for a job in my profession here, there and everywhere. The competition is overwhelming, the arts economy is stuck in the doldrums (read: toilet!) and, needless to say, I haven’t got that job yet. Finally, it seems more sensible to just pack up and go and let the fates have their way with me. At least I’ll be warm!

Right now, I’m sorting through all those belongings I don’t really need and can’t fit into my tiny Honda. Recycling all those ridiculous amounts of paperwork we’re compelled to keep filed away. Selling the furniture, the dishes, the silverware, the plants—everything!

And I’m truly excited about heading to the land of endless summer again!

I plan to leave after a final performance of a new solo-piece I’ve been working on, “Poet in Amerika: In which an oppressive and intangible system keeps putting the protagonist into bizarre situations.” Even though it’s a solo-performance, I’ll be incorporating a film of some of my talented friends and colleagues reading from my poetic works into the show. This day-in-the-life of a poet premiers on Friday, March 8th at the Hooker-Dunham Theater for friends and supporters of Acting On Impulse Theatre Company.

As for the Company, it’s heading to California, too.

And some big changes are in the works:
1) We’re reorganizing into a worker-owned Cooperative theatre company! More to come on this in the next few posts.
2) We’re looking to buy/lease and renovate our new home to be 100% sustainable! That means totally off-the-grid and completely recyclable wherever/whenever possible. 0% waste. 0% carbon footprint.

These 2 new directions have long been my personal dream. I’m scouting now for cities with empty warehouse areas or defunct shopping centers that I and my fellow artists can revive and renew.

I want to take something that’s gone fallow and breathe new life into it. But a life that is based upon respect for all!

Want to be a part of this? Let’s talk!