File this under "Things You Already Know Too Damn Well": 2017 hasn't exactly been a banner year so far. Last year already felt bad enough, but as we descend into Autumn, things sure don't seem to be looking up. We're nowhere near the gender parity that we need in our industry, no matter how many solutions we continue to propose. Art and cultural institutions that we label as "vital" and "irreplaceable" flame out in brilliant displays of fiscal mismanagement. The bright spots of financial success in the theater world quickly rise out of the reach of the common person. And let's not forget the bots. No matter how much you fire back, the bots are coming for you.
But it's not just our industry that's driving me to despair. We're all struggling to come to terms with another horrific mass shooting, while legislators' "thoughts and prayers" float through the air like farts in an amphitheater. A hurricane just completely flattened a piece of America, where 3.4 million American citizens live, and the best thing our President could bring himself to do for them was toss paper towel rolls to a crowd, like a cheap Oprah Winfrey knockoff. In the meantime, a musical theater actor is doing more to call attention to Puerto Rico's ongoing crisis than our own government. And every month, every week, every damn day, another embarrassing, incompetent, vengeful, preening, narcissistic flapdoodle over nothing of substance falls flapping like a dying fish from the highest office in the land.
It's all so damn dispiriting. It's no wonder I'm having trouble motivating myself to do anything creative these days.
The novelist John Scalzi recently published a blog post that encapsulates the general malaise that I and many of our artistic colleagues having been descending into as this clown show adaptation of the Bataan Death March lumbers on, all ill-fitting suits and empty, spittle-flecked gesticulations. After noticing that his artistic output has slowed down this year, Scalzi pondered why he was so much more easily distracted now, considering that he was perfectly able to churn out five novels during the needless wars and horrendous financial crash of the Bush era:
"The thing is, the Trump era is a different kind of awful. It is, bluntly, unremitting awfulness. The man has been in office for nine months at this point and there is rarely a week or month where things have not been historically crappy, a feculent stew of Trump’s shittiness as a human and as a president, his epically corrupt and immoral administration, and the rise of worse elements of America finally feeling free to say, hey, in fact, they do hate Jews and gays and brown people. Maybe other people can focus when Shitty America is large and in charge, but I’m finding it difficult to do."
So, this was generally the mood I was in when I first showed up for the 2nd annual Minnesota Theater Alliance Statewide Theater Conference this weekend. Last year's conference had a sort of magical sheen about it. We were all cocooned in an idyllic little college in the middle of nowhere, able to idle away the off-hours with drink and dreams. That was all well and good, but this year, as we sat in a conference room at Hamline University, able to dissipate back into the metro landscape at a moment's notice, we were much more inclined to get down to brass tacks. In short, shit got real.
This year's conference focused a lot on health, safety and well-being, in all the myriad ways you could define those terms. In not so many words, it was about survival, which I believe is on all of our minds this year. We got a keynote address from Kate Barr of Nonprofits Assistance Fund on adapting the nonprofit business model to the times (which felt all the more timely, considering what we were talking about last week with Intermedia Arts). We got a calm, sober assurance from William Reynolds of Yale School of Drama about the advances in health and safety in the theater world, immediately followed by a blunt, blistering assessment by Monona Rossol, from Arts, Crafts and Theater Safety, Inc., of the current batch of horrible safety problems rampant in the theater world. (Terrifying pro tip: if you see a chemical in your scene shop labeled "non-toxic", there's a good chance that it is, in fact, extremely toxic but just hasn't been tested by anyone). And we got a final keynote speech from P. Carl, co-founder of HowlRound and the co-director of ArtsEmerson, about caring—not just caring for others, but making sure to remember to care for yourself. (Carl also shared his method for clearing his head: swimming; because, as a novice swimmer, all he could afford to think about while doing it was "not dying.")
There were many other discussions and break-out sessions in which we all talked passionately about what was wrong with what and what we could possibly do about that what. (You can bet the New Epic Theater incident from earlier this year came up in the discussion of "Creating a Culture of Safety".) There was all the requisite talk of inclusivity, diversity, intersectionality; but the thing that probably struck me the most from this year's Conference was a plenary session from the very first day, called "Failing Forward."
Andi Cheney spoke on behalf of Patrick's Cabaret and described how being unceremoniously tossed out of their old home actually helped them to better focus their mission and energy (just in time to possibly lose their new home at Intermedia Arts). Anton Jones, the newly-minted Artistic Director of CLIMB Theatre told us how the retirement of CLIMB's founder and only previous leader, coupled with an unexpected deficit, provided the opportunity to regroup and pursue new policies that not only pulled the company back into the black, but allowed them pay their people better. Gary Nickell and Grace Matheson of Gooseberry Park Players in Moorhead, shared their stories of being flooded out of one home, losing another one, and rebounding back to be even stronger. Sharon Stark from Little Theater of Owatonna talked about their 50-year-old company confronting the fact that their old audience was aging and dying off, and making changes to their marketing and canon that is helping to build a new one. Zoe Malinchoc, of Absolute Theater came as a representative of the Rochester theater community as a whole, acknowledging the difficult circumstances that their community currently faces and showing that they are resolute in moving forward and even expanding their capabilities.
In your life, you may have heard some motivational speaker say something about the Chinese symbols for "crisis" and "opportunity" being the same, or connected, or some other such thing. It sounds so nice, doesn't it? It fits perfectly with the American idea that if you fail, it's entirely your own fault for not seeing the "opportunity" inside the "crisis"; but, as with any "Asian wisdom" peddled by westerners, this is entirely bullshit. There is not always an opportunity inside of a crisis. What there is, however, inside the written Chinese for "crisis" is the ideogram "jī", which can represent an "incipient moment", a "crucial point", or "quick-wittedness". (It can also represent "mechanical device", but that one doesn't fit with the point I'm about to make, so, like a good Westerner, I will ignore it.) What I saw in those speakers at this plenary session was a group of people who managed to see that crucial point coming, and managed to turn their ships before they crossed it, wrenching themselves out of disaster before it actually hit. That requires an openness to change, to experiment, to grow, before disaster is thrust upon you.
I see that kind of thing all the time in the Minnesota theater world. As much as I tend to bitch about all of us being stuck in these unhelpful ruts, seemingly unwilling to climb out of them, there are plenty of people out there responding to their circumstances, answering the calls to move and grow. Look at all the recent winners of the Knight Arts Challenge for St. Paul. Look at Minnesotan Ashley Hanson, who set off across country in an old bus to connect up artists across the rural landscape. Look at all the institutions that are willing to team up and combine resources to better serve. MAP for Nonprofits and Nonprofits Assistance Fund, both of which have done so much good work to help our local arts nonprofits, are joining forces to become Propel Nonprofits. The Minnesota Theater Alliance is teaming up with Explore Minnesota to create Explore MN Theater. At this conference, I learned of a small group of scenic artists who are banding together to form their own guild in order to support each other. Right in my own neighborhood, a collection of performers have partnered with a labor union to form Strike Theater, which just held its grand opening while all this theater conference stuff was going on.
All the time you Minnesota theater people surprise me with your ability to grow and adapt. I won't lie: these are shitty times. (Anyone who says differently is selling something.) But you're only as alone as you think you are.
I'll end today with an extended quote from that John Scalzi essay that I shared earlier, because not only did he sum up how I felt when I went into this year's theater conference, but he also summed up how I felt after I left:
"What 2017 has been doing for me is making me realize that I can’t do work in the same way I used to. It’s too hard to tune out what’s going on in the world, and because of it I have to make some changes — to my workflow, to my understanding of what’s a good writing day, and in allocating time to get work done. In effect, I have to learn how to change my swing in order to work effectively in this chaotic new environment. It’s taken me longer to figure this out than I would have liked; I’ve spent a lot of time this year trying to get make the old workflow function rather than reconfiguring my process to the new facts on the ground. Part of this was, simply, hoping things would settle down and get back to normal. But it’s October 2017 and it’s time to face the fact that, at least as far as my writing process goes, the old “normal” is gone.
"Why am I talking about this right now? Basically, because I know it’s not just me. I know a lot of writers have seen their process take a hit here in 2017. It’s hard to focus when the world is on fire, and with novelists in particular, I suspect that sometimes it’s hard to focus when you’ve got the suspicion that your fiction is almost frivolous in the context of what’s going on right now. Well, and maybe it is. But, speaking as someone who spent an hour retweeting pet pictures today to break up the horror of mass shooting news in people’s tweetstreams, sometimes frivolity helps. And for all writers (and probably other creative people as well), knowing that you’re not the only one having a fucked-up world messing with your process might make you feel less alone."