© Arlene Goldbard 2001
This essay originally appeared in Theater, Volume 31, Number 3 (Spring 2002)
Before I begin, I invite you to join me in a stroll down memory lane. To tell the truth, I’m a little tired of going by myself. Looking back, I am simultaneously touched by the intensity of my generation’s hopes and appalled at the hyperinflated idealism that fueled them. The idea that art can make society more just, equitable, and democratic is hardly an artifact of the sixties (though I admit I am). The impulse to instruct–to take note, to rebuke, to celebrate–was probably part of the first story ever told. But our claims for art’s power to effect social transformation were among the grandest ever made, and our efforts to put them into practice were prodigious. The thing is, correcting for youthful hyperbole, I still believe most of these claims. With my own eyes, I’ve seen theater mobilize a community, alter the self-image of its members, peel back layers of disinformation to expose galvanizing truths.
When I began work on this essay, I immediately wanted to revisit a particular moment in the history of progressive theater, one richly encrusted with both personal and political associations. I made my way to our archives to pry a pile of folders out of the drawer labeled “Minnesota.” They contain materials from The Gathering, a festival and conference of socially conscious performing artists–“cultural workers,” we were called–that took place August 9-16, 1981, on the campus of Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, a small town in southern Minnesota.
In late 1980 Don Adams and I were directors of a coalition of artists and organizations dedicated to cultural democracy: pluralism, participation, and equity in cultural policy and cultural life. Out of the blue, theater people across the country suddenly began receiving invitations to an impressive-sounding event sponsored by a theater group called Cherry Creek, which no one had heard of before. At around the same time, Cherry Creek launched a bimonthly publication, Theaterwork, featuring coverage of progressive performance work. The phone calls began: Who were these people? Where did they get the money to bring so many companies to Minnesota? Should their invitation be accepted? We checked them out, but no evidence of Moonie or CIA taint turned up–and a year after Ronald Reagan had taken office, few of us were inclined to ignore what seemed to be an encouraging sign of life in our movement.
The Gathering was programmed to within an inch of its life. The week started off with a parade and pageant of masked figures and giant puppets (Cherry Creek’s rhetoric favored rustic grandiloquence; the parade was entitled “Let the Bird of the Earth Fly!”) and took its theme from the writings of Ivan Illich: “‘To reconstruct society means, above all, to empower individual persons to remake it.’ We will try to speak out clearly and effectively from this ancient valley about that empowerment as it is found in the rights of a free people to a name, a place, a story and a song.”
The five hundred participants were channeled into five “working collectives,” with titles like “Performance and Collectivity: The Emergence and Transformation of Societal Structures through the Enactment of Communitas” (I was one of the leaders for that mouthful, along with Harry Boyte, George Lakey, and Max Kaplan) and “Performance and the Transformation of Historical Perspective: The Living Story” (led by Barbara Meyerhoff, Meridel LeSueur, Doug Paterson, and Tom McGrath). There were dozens of workshops, from one given by Barry Opper of the now-defunct Provisional Theatre on “Collective Management,” to “Relation between Physical Disease, Healing, and Community” by Naomi Newman of A Traveling Jewish Theatre and “Singing–An Acting Workshop” by Paul Zimet of the Talking Band.
There were just as many performances, including Inching through the Everglades by the Provisional Theatre from Los Angeles, then very near the end of its life; The Last Yiddish Poet by A Traveling Jewish Theatre, then based in Los Angeles; Worksong by the Talking Band; Junkie! by At the Foot of the Mountain, a now-defunct feminist theater company in Minneapolis; If I Live to See Next Fall by the Play Group, a Knoxville company that went under not long afterward; Salt Speaks by Otrabanda, then based in New Orleans; and The Octopus/El Pulpo by El Teatro de la Esperanza, then based in Santa Barbara.
I spent a lot of my free time at The Gathering caucusing with other political types, drawing up a statement of principles that was later circulated at other progressive cultural meetings. This was the closing paragraph in a list headed “We as cultural workers call on the arts community at large”: “To recognize and act on our particular responsibility as cultural workers to constantly improve our artwork in form, content, and function, to reconstruct in light of heightened political understandings, and to assume full responsibility for the meaning and message of our work.”
A few days later, Don and I attended the Alternate ROOTS (Regional Organization of Theaters South) annual meeting in Tennessee. Here’s how we wrote about the conjunction of these two events in the September 1981 issue of NAPNOC notes:
When we arrived at Camp Ozone to attend the ROOTS meeting, we were fresh from The Gathering. Midway into our non-stop babbling about our experiences in Minnesota, we were interrupted by a dismayed-looking Ruby Lerner, ROOTS’ Executive Director: “Oh no,” Ruby complained, “I was afraid that The Gathering would turn out to be the Woodstock of the ’80s and just like Woodstock, I missed it!”
Well, The Gathering wasn’t much like Woodstock in all of the obvious ways. . . . But there is some sense in which the comparison is apt. The special events of this season–The Gathering and ROOTS, the People’s Theater Festival and TENAZ [Teatro Nacional de Aztlán] Festival this month in San Francisco–seem to signal a change in consciousness; as the statements of Cherry Creek . . . put it, “a lifting sign of cultural democracy.”
In the course of three years of publication, Theaterwork carried innumerable articles that excited our imaginations and hopes, from a piece on the Tukak Theatre of Inuit people in Greenland to Ross Kidd’s wonderful coverage of popular theater in Africa and Asia; profiles of PETA (a Filipino popular theater), Vormings Teatr from the Netherlands, and many others; an interview with Augusto Boal; Doug Paterson’s first proposals for a people’s theater curriculum; Joel Schechter’s account of Brecht, Lazarenko, and Mayakovsky; and Steve Kent and Deena Metzger’s account of their joint project, Dreams against the State.
Those mysterious invitations to The Gathering catalyzed a discussion that made a lot of us feel connected and supported, smack dab in the middle of America’s love affair with Reaganism. At its height, in 1983, Cherry Creek published We Are Strong: A Guide to the Work of Popular Theatres across the Americas. When the group first floated the idea of this book, its working title was “We Will Not Be Disappeared,” a reference to the desaparecidos of Chile’s torture-loving regime. At the time, I counseled rhetorical restraint, and indeed, so far as I know, none of the theater groups that have disappeared since that time are victims of state-sanctioned murder. Some companies collapsed under the weight of marketing experts’ advice to get with the Reagan-era program, trying to replace subsidy with box-office earnings; after the major funding cuts of the early 1980s, some companies simply starved, their members leaving to seek paying work elsewhere.
Later that same year, a mere two years after The Gathering, swamped by debt, with its own core group members mired in intraorganizational conflict (and a slew of interorganizational problems I won’t go into here) Theaterwork ceased publication and Cherry Creek dropped out of sight. Now you can’t even find it on the Internet; I searched for more than an hour.
The Persistence of Theater for Social Change . . .
Skeptical of constituted authority and entrenched institutions, convinced that the deepest social transformations are grounded in the deepest individual epiphanies, artists have persisted in making theater to change the world.
It seems to me this enduring impulse has two main sources. First (this is so easy to write in January 2001, just after the Bush inauguration), in our age of politics as a form of commerce, a lot of smart people seriously doubt the efficacy of conventional paths to social transformation. (According to the Center for Responsive Politics [www.opensecrets.org], in the most recent presidential election, candidates spent an aggregate of $310,711,642, which of course does not include money spent by others to support their campaigns nor spending in other races during the same election campaign. Any theater worker who wishes to argue that this was a positive expression of democracy rather than deceit and hypocrisy taken to a higher power is invited to do so.) It’s not just elections either. We have seen enough revolutions fail, bought off or drowned in blood, to question that faith as well. Second, people look to their own experience, and for most of us, many life-changing moments have been encounters with art: the film or play that foreshadowed a different sort of existence, the image that startled you awake, the first time you told your story and nobody breathed, the first time a song showed you how humans survive unspeakable pain–how we turn it into beauty, into grace, into an arrow aimed at the heart of the matter.
The absence of Web references to The Gathering hints at one truth about most of the progressive arts work of the past half century: rather than a continuum, an ongoing dialogue between generations, what we find is serial sui generis not a lineage but a form of connect-the-dots. This makes the persistence of social-change theater all the more remarkable. As was true for their counterparts in the 1960s and 1970s, few of today’s practitioners studied at the feet of their predecessors. Instead, progressive theater comprises an assortment of self-invented projects connected by the shared proclivity of their founders to claim the power of art to address social consciousness and conditions. The people who put on The Gathering certainly invented themselves and their brave and foolishly overreaching enterprise. But while they may take the prize for most off-the-wall manifestation, again and again we’ve seen theaters springing up, seemingly from nowhere, dedicated to social change.
Theater for social change is nothing if not polymorphous; any season features everything from culturally specific companies unearthing buried history to mainstream artists claiming they invented “civic dialogue” as an art form. But right now the two tendencies that seem strongest blur the distinction between performers and audience, stressing participation in providing the material from which theater is made and, often, bringing nonprofessionals onstage. (The following quotations that describe these companies are all from their Web sites, listed at the end of this essay.)
First are community-based theaters, which range from such deep-rooted regional groups as Appalshop’s Roadside Theater (“Roadside Theater creates its plays and helps other communities create their plays from local life”) and the Bloomsburg (Pa.) Theatre Ensemble (“We live and work in this rural region because, in an increasingly impersonal world, we need to be in a place where dialogue with an audience is possible”) to the more eclectic approach of L.A.’s Cornerstone Theater (“Our aesthetic is community-specific, contemporary, multilingual, innovative, and joyful”) or a largely volunteer group like the Ukiah Players Theatre in northern California, which has mounted a series of participatory, oral history-based shows under the title “Telling the Truth in a Small Town.”
The others comprise theaters rooted in the international popular-theater movement, particularly the theories and practices of Augusto Boal, such as Toronto’s Mixed Company (“our aim is to use theatre and theatre techniques as a means to animate and examine issues of direct concern to people, and to pass on those techniques to participants so that they can continue to be a valuable addition to the community”) and Vancouver’s Headlines Theatre (“While we call our community work THEATRE FOR LIVING, it is based on Brazilian Director Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed”). This form of theater, rooted in the developing world, tends to be more established outside the United States. Within the United States we more commonly find academic homes for the work, such as Doug Paterson’s base at the University of Nebraska, where he helped found and currently chairs the Pedagogy & Theatre of the Oppressed conference, and Jan Cohen-Cruz’s at New York University; and individual trainers and practitioners, like Marc Weinblatt, former artistic director of Seattle’s Public Theater, who has recently formed the Mandala Center as a base for his Theater of the Oppressed training and other activities.
. . . In the Face of Discouragement
The persistence of theater for social change is especially impressive considering the scale and power of the obstacles that have been placed in its way, whether critical dismissal, the withdrawal of material resources, or the rise of political reaction. Most often, socially engaged theaters face all three.
In some ways, the story of public funding tells it all. It’s not that money makes art, merely that artists, like everyone else, need it to live. Theaters critical of the existing social order cannot depend, as mainstream theaters do, on contributed income from wealthy individuals. Progressive theater in some form will always survive the withdrawal of resources by government and private philanthropies. But without funds, it tends to recede into agitprop; the time and attention needed to develop craft and deepen artistry require some form of subsidy. If you trace the history of theater funding, you’ll find that the history of progressive theater runs a parallel course.
The first time arts subsidy transcended private patronage was in the New Deal programs of the 1930s. Within the government’s overall response to the Great Depression, the live performing arts, already hurt by the introduction of radio and movies, were treated as a distressed industry. During the Depression, labor theaters and politically oriented experimental theaters proliferated, especially when the federal government began to put unemployed artists to work, just as it did unemployed factory workers. Performing-arts projects created by Works Progress Administration (WPA) artists had a strongly social dimension–the Living Newspaper’s experimental productions of One-Third of a Nation, Spirochete, and other social-issue plays are probably the best-known –providing fodder for the anti-Communist witch-hunts that led to their downfall.
Until the late 1950s, a strong taboo clung to public arts support. Then major foundations, arguing an unavoidable “income gap” between the aspirations of performing-arts institutions and their ability to raise contributions, called for both public and private subvention. The creation of the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities (NEA and NEH) in 1965 marked the sea change they sought. In the expansive mood of the Kennedy-Johnson era, Congress was persuaded that public arts support would be good for the country’s world standing, establishing parity with other world powers on the cultural front just as we had in space exploration and the arms race. With the NEA as the flagship of public arts funding, the rising tide of appropriations lifted the network of state arts agencies created in its image. Although the NEA’s budget was never very large ($176 million at its peak in 1992), its grants were treated as seals of approval, and most foundation funding followed its lead.
Meanwhile, beginning in the late 1960s, federal, state and local governments responded to urban unrest and growing dissidence by supporting constructive outlets for disenfranchised youth, jobs for the structurally unemployed, and amenities for depressed communities. Many of these initiatives provided support for socially conscious artists. At its height in the late seventies, for example, the Nixon-Ford-era jobs program known as CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) in a single year invested $200 million in arts jobs for community muralists, theater troupes, music teachers, community animateurs–about twice the current NEA budget (and much more when adjusted for inflation). As social movements expanded, social justice-oriented funders began to support related arts projects as instruments of consciousness-raising leading to social change.
With Reagan’s inauguration in 1980, the tide abruptly receded. Although arts subvention had always been a minuscule portion of federal and state budgets, the organized Right made it a cause célèbre. The NEA’s budget was threatened after fifteen years of growth, and social programs like CETA were obliterated. Many community-based and socially conscious arts organizations failed, finding it impossible to sustain themselves on earnings or contributions. Less than a year after the Gathering, we wrote a survey piece on coping with budget cuts. The year before, the Baltimore Theatre Project had been a model of community-based theater; in the March 1982 issue of Cultural Democracy, we wrote that it
had a staff of 52 at this time last year, [which] dropped last spring to around 20 due to CETA cuts. Now a half-dozen staff remain, and more layoffs may occur. . . .
Deep staff reductions . . . have virtually eliminated the Baltimore group’s community service programs: The Rat Squad (a theater piece about rat eradication and neighborhood pride) was ended in mid-March, earlier than scheduled, because of Community Development Block Grant reductions; all but two members of the Baltimore Voices oral history company have been laid off.
Within a short time, attacks on public arts funding became a strategy of choice for religious-right organizations whose fundraising succeeded in direct proportion to the outrage stimulated by their direct-mail campaigns. By the beginning of the nineties, Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, and Marlon Riggs had ironically become superstars of outrage, receiving far wider exposure through anti-art campaigns than they could ever have achieved otherwise. Since the offending images had been financed by individual artists’ fellowship funds, Congress prohibited the NEA from awarding fellowships, and many other funders followed suit, pulling back from support to individuals. Attempts to defend the agency finally collapsed after the 1994 congressional election, leaving the federal arts budget at just over 55 percent of the peak level it had reached in 1992.
Today, the situation is widely perceived as dire. In 1999, Don Adams and I were engaged by the Rockefeller Foundation to conduct a study of funding for new creation in the performing arts, including an evaluation of the foundation’s Multi-Arts Production (MAP) Fund. (Much of the material in this section is adapted from that report: “Report to the Rockefeller Foundation Arts and Humanities Division on the Multi-Arts Production Fund Evaluation,” submitted on April 16, 1999.) In the section “The State of the Performing Arts Field,” we included the following quotations. This is from a performer considered wildly successful:
“It’s horrifying. We’re all embarked on this ridiculous thinking process: what models can we find to outlive the crisis? Every month, I hear of another performance space about to close down. I’ve never seen so many artist-collaborators unemployed, trying to find creative ways to continue, or cross over to other realms without co-opting their work too much.”
This next speaker presents many social change-oriented performances:
“We can only do a limited number of programs now. We’re starting to push things further off to be able to fund them properly. . . .You have dropout, extraordinary talents burnt out raising money, shifting to teaching or other jobs. I’m worried about the next generation. At a certain point, you take all the guts out of what you’re doing, and people don’t respond–and you didn’t do what you really wanted because you didn’t have the money. We find ourselves there.”
This is from an arts service organization executive:
“Most theaters budget the NEA as zero and treat anything they get as icing. There are fewer and fewer sources. No one gives general operating support to keep the lights on and the doors open. Everyone spends a disproportionate amount of time on fundraising. The time demands are enormous, you have to reorient your priorities to satisfy funders. . . . And we have no long-term reserves.”
And finally, from a musician who often works in community-based theater:
“Artists have been demonized, and I can’t see that changing in my lifetime.”
In the face of such obstacles, artists have been amazingly resourceful. Many of the surviving community-based companies have adapted to a nonprofit economy that requires a huge time investment in grant writing to produce a barely adequate return. The philanthropic culture prizes novelty, endowing funders with the right to determine priorities, chasing fads and trends. This requires organizations to constantly repackage and refocus their work, a costly and time-consuming process. “Success” can mean carrying several demanding and under-funded projects in order to meet overhead. An artistic director we interviewed for another Rockefeller Foundation study (“Community Cultural Development,” submitted December 14, 1999) had this to say: “I made the decision to speak in many tongues to get the support we needed. I spoke the professional artistic language and made sure all the artists are on that level. I got a degree in social work to get into the elder facilities, because they’d say we don’t want artists; and recently I learned the educational and school-reform language.” [Subsequently published as Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Developent, this quotation appears on p. 76.] Others rely on volunteer time. The rest take advantage of opportunities. Surely the reason so much Boal-influenced work is centered in universities is that the faculty members who promote and direct it are willing to use their sinecures to anchor it, perhaps knowing that unmoored, it would never survive.
Strength in Numbers
Theater for social change gains strength whenever artists organize to support one another in their world-changing work. I have no question that The Gathering and Theaterwork were pivotal in inspiring, connecting, and thereby sustaining progressive theater during the difficult early Reagan years.
The health of community-based and Boal-influenced theaters, in comparison to that of the entire universe of political theater, is significantly due to the active organization of coalitions in those fields, organization shaped to a notable degree by economic conditions. In community-based performance, the longest-lived and largest group is Alternate ROOTS, formed in 1976 and now including 128 members. Although collegial dialogue and mutual support have always been powerful reasons to join ROOTS, as the funding picture has shifted, the organization’s raison d’être has been framed more in terms of opportunities for income and exposure. According to its Web site, ROOTS’s objectives are
- To make artistic resources available to creating ensembles and individuals through workshops and residencies
- To create appropriate distribution networks for new work being generated in the region via touring, publication and liaison activity
- To provide opportunities for enhanced visibility and financial stability
Each of these objectives is in service of our founding impulse: to make it increasingly possible for artists creating work reflective of a particular place and people to thrive in that region.
The American Festival Project, based at Appalshop, Appalachia’s notably successful community-based multi-arts project, was started by ROOTS members and is even more focused on providing work and income for its eight-member companies through a series of extended residency and festival projects, such as the Knoxville Festival Project, facilitated by AFP member Carpetbag Theatre, and a multiyear exchange project between El Teatro Pregones, a Puerto Rican American troupe from the South Bronx, Junebug Productions, an African American theater company from New Orleans, and Roadside Theater.
The approach of ROOTS and AFP, which ties coalition building to livelihood, has been a smart survival strategy in a period otherwise inhospitable to coalitions. But although this work is important, it is narrower in scope than building a movement. Serving as resource providers for members necessarily limits an organization: unlike earlier coalitions, these organizations cannot afford to alienate funders with too much criticism, and rather than addressing the broadest field, they cannot help but divide those who receive the benefits of membership from the unaffiliated.
Similarly, while university-based efforts such as the annual Pedagogy & Theatre of the Oppressed conference and the more recent Hemispheric Institute Seminar and Conference on “Performance and Politics in the Americas” have unquestionably helped spread interest and involvement in Theater of the Oppressed, such meetings have also served an economic role in strengthening the reputations and standings of the faculty and departments sponsoring them (as well as providing venues for the presentation of countless academic papers advancing presenters’ personal professional development). Once again, a double truth comes into play: if such events did not further the direct interests of their individual participants and host institutions as well as their founders’ political aims, it is doubtful they would survive; but with institutional powers to please, there is a limit on how critical or overtly activist they will be.
Such efforts are important, valuable, essential in these times. May they live long and prosper, escaping the fate of Theaterwork and a dozen others I still miss. Yet it seems clear that without broader, more ambitious, and less encumbered organizing and coalition-building efforts, we are unlikely to see more than a saving remnant of theater for social change, the remnant that just won’t quit.
The Forecast: Shades of Gray
Recently, there have been several sparks of hope and just as many reasons to despair. Some phenomena are difficult to place. Certain types of socially engaged performance work have “trickled up” from the margins to the mainstream. For example, the talented choreographer Bill T. Jones has used methods devised by community-based companies to create pieces focused on social issues such as the AIDS epidemic; his art-world standing has led to commissions by major opera companies including the New York City Opera and Houston Grand Opera, and this association has enhanced the elite institutions’ reputations for relevancy and engagement. Is this a good thing?
Well, yes and no. On the one hand, when mainstream companies begin thinking that work ought to matter to more than the conventional season-subscription audience, this is a sign of life. The general trend toward cultural diversity and socially instrumental arts work has persuaded some major funders to free up more resources for such work. But when an otherwise conventional company seeks supplemental funding to address social issues, it creates unbalanced competition. The most common example of this imbalance occurs when a smaller, culturally specific theater–say, one that has been struggling to produce African American theater for years–suddenly finds itself in competition with a major institution such as the Guthrie Theater, seeking a subsidy to add an African American play to its season, to “reach out” into the black community for audiences. Here’s how a director we interviewed for our 1999 Rockefeller study put it:
The question is, given the size of the financial pie, who gets most? Though you have to look at organizations’ size and grant accordingly, there are historical impediments to multicultural organizations growing. When I ran a company, I was told I couldn’t apply for substantial grants unless our operating budget was $1 million a year. The larger organizations that have that kind of resources weren’t interested in multicultural work until they got extra money for it. I’m glad they’re expanding and including, but will their programming dry up when the money does? It’s a double standard, there are barriers to being able to compete.
Similarly, some companies involved in Boal-inspired work have sought to earn income by consulting with corporations: in theory, Forum Theater as a problem-solving tool will work for big business as well as for a union or community organizations, and it certainly will pay better. On the one hand this is encouraging: companies that can support themselves can downplay the debilitating enterprise of fundraising, and looking at problems in fresh ways could stimulate questioning within the corporate workplace. Who knows where that could lead? On the other hand it is dispiriting: if in the infinitely absorbent New Economy even the most insurgent ideas can be easily converted into management tips for big business, does insurgency retain any meaning?
And so it goes. The Internet is promising because it brings efficiencies in multidirectional communication, enabling useful networking and collaboration between individuals and groups committed to progressive theater, and it’s scary because so many funders have become infatuated with new media that the meager funding pie is likely to be resliced to the detriment of live, in-person arts work. The forces of globalization have created common enemies and common languages, so that I am currently collaborating with allies in Europe, Asia, and Africa (via email, of course); but while we make plans for our modest transnational initiatives, multinational corporations are scheming to saturate the globe to the dewpoint with commercial culture.
Indeed, I think the current situation of theater for social change is so completely emblematic of the zeitgeist that it’s scary. I don’t know whether the Bush years will decimate the field, as Reagan’s coming did, or if having learned from experience, people will survive and prosper, defiantly. I think it’s up to all of us.
Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble: www.bte.org
Cornerstone Theater: www.cornerstonetheater.org
Headlines Theatre: www.headlinestheatre.com
The Mandala Center: www.mandalaforchange.com
Mixed Company: www.mixedcompanytheatre.com
Pedagogy & Theatre of the Oppressed conference: www.unomaha.edu/~pto/
Roadside Theater: www.roadside.org