Mission

Been thinking about missions a lot lately.

One reason is that I am writing a mission statement for White Pines Productions, as I move through the preparations for becoming officially incorporated in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It’s been tough. I dislike mission statements – my own and everyone else’s. Why?

One reason is that they have always seemed limiting and reductive. It pains me to see a group of artists put a self-inflicted box around themselves, since to me, art is limitless. To carve out a portion of creativity (as if that was even possible) and say to the world, this is what we do, seems not only futile, but false. If you do theater well, you do a million things on stage, and if you endure, then you must be doing them pretty well. But as you and your audiences grow what you do changes. Each year you age, you become a slightly different person. For every new artist you work with, you add a new universe of creativity, making fun of the little patch your mission statement stakes out. Art, creativity and imagination cannot and should not be bounded by aesthetic fences.

Then there is the non-aesthetic, value-based mission statement. These kinds of mission statements – generally grand and highfalutin –  can essentially be reduced to the following: we do good theater. Firstly, of course you do. Secondly, there is no such thing. That’s right. I don’t believe in the concept of good theater. I don’t believe there is a collection of objectively assessable attributes we all can agree on which will equal “good theater”. Years ago, in the midst of one of my battles with the critics, I blogged about this. It seems ridiculous to me to concoct a mission statement which affirms what is obvious (that I want to make “good theater”) based on a faulty premise (that “good theater” exists). By the way, “bad theater” does not exist either. There is only theater you like, and theater you don’t like.

Still, theater companies everywhere labor over mission statements, as I am laboring over one now. One reason why, is that the mission statement is, essentially, your label, your cereal box, your blurb to the world. It is what defines you in the market economy as an entity to be bought, supported, sold and advertised. It’s a “hook”, so that ideally, when someone hears “White Pines Productions” they think, oh right, the nudist theater company, the way when one says [ put your fave theater company here ] you think, oh right, [               . ]

People I love and admire, truly, have made theatre companies with mission statements like I am describing, and have been true to them in their work. And God bless them, because they have found integrity in the process and have employed me and my friends. So I recognize that my resistance to the whole thing has as much to do with me and my issues as it does with mission statements, the world of non-profits, art and the economy. An artistic director of a major theater once said to me, “I finally figured you out, Ben. You’re an anarchist!” I felt my hackles rise as I sensed the application of a mission statement to my very being: Benjamin Lloyd: dedicated to laying waste to organizations and institutions wherever he finds them. Problem was, she was on to me . . . a little. I am guy who has trouble with institutions, who is trying to make an institution.

I have taken a crack at mission statements before. Right before I left New York City for Philadelphia, in the fall of 1993, I was planning the creation of something I had named the Total Artist Group, or TAG for short. The title came from something I had heard the avant gard director Lee Breuer say to a class of actors in drama school: “An actor is not an interpretive artist. An actor is a total artist who has something to say.” Here’s what that mission statement looked like:

TOTAL ARTIST GROUP, INC.

 “The actor is not an interpretive artist,

the actor is a total artist who has something to say.” – Lee Bruer

 Mission Statement [Mission: a specific task with which a person or group is charged : CALLING, VOCATION]

TOTAL ARTIST GROUP is a theater collective dedicated to the emergence of a new American theater in the twenty first century.

TOTAL ARTIST GROUP  believes in the spiritual, healing aspect of theater. We strive to bring people together in the living arena created by actor and audience, where theater breeds tolerance, compassion and renewal.

TOTAL ARTIST GROUP  is committed to the economic self-reliance of the artist, believing that we can make ends meet through our creativity and through fostering innovative partnerships with private enterprises and public and private educational groups.  

TOTAL ARTIST GROUP seeks individuals for its membership with distinct visions for theater in America who are ready to commit to the collaborative process over a long period, believing that our individual successes are contingent upon our ability to believe in each other’s dreams. 

TOTAL ARTIST GROUP is bent on freeing the narrow definitions of what each of us in the theater is “allowed” to do. Only through the most complete collaboration will we be able to create a new theatrical culture. The impetus for a theatrical event must be free to come from any quarter. It’s not about neglecting or ignoring your area of expertise; it’s about exploring different ways to execute the creative impulse inside.

TOTAL ARTIST GROUP strives to maintain a safe rehearsal environment where experimentation flourishes and the artist is lifted back up after they fall down. We are the home you return to after various forays into other artistic endeavors.  

TOTAL ARTIST GROUP espouses no codified esthetic vision, nor do we subscribe to any social or political agenda. Our membership is our identity, and we are guided by the principle of free expression. We believe that the rich and varied interests of our membership will most ably represent the diversity of content, taste and style which makes contemporary theater thrive.

TOTAL ARTIST GROUP fiscal policy is that the artist gets paid first. For too long, the artist’s livelihood has been treated contemptuously as the producer’s optional hardship. Our goal is to be able to guarantee a living wage to all who work full time on our productions, teach in our school, participate in related projects, or any combination thereof. We believe the happy, well paid artist will find thrifty, inventive solutions when resources are limited. For a full explanation of fiscal policy, budget projections and investment strategy, please refer to the attached document: TOTAL ARTIST GROUP – The Business Plan. 

TOTAL ARTIST GROUP is not just another small theater company in New York. In order to attract investment and create a broad revenue base, we are a diversified group with many simultaneous undertakings. Our members are expected to earn their salaries through working in more than one of these at the same time. What follow are descriptions of our different enterprises, which are gathered beneath the umbrella called TOTAL ARTIST GROUP.

This was written in 1993, when I was 31 years old. As overwrought as it is, I find in it the seeds of the mission I am working on now, nearly twenty years later. It describes an interest in the connection between performance and spirituality, economic innovation for the arts, long term collaboration and a refusal to describe an aesthetic mission – all ideas which still compel me.

In 2008, when I moved to Elkins Park PA, I gathered some friends around me and began talking about forming a theater here. They gave the exercise to write a mission statement. I hated it, but I came up with two, one called Elkins Park Theater (boring) and one called Theater Fore! (ick):

Elkins Park Theatre

 Elkins Park Theatre has three goals:

  • to explore the spiritual implications of theatre, believing that a play performed is a spiritual event, binding actor and audience in a communion. This goal effects the kinds of plays we produce, and the way we produce them. We are interested in plays which intentionally raise spiritual issues, offer spiritual implications or explore spiritual or religious traditions and ideas. 
  • to create a dynamic relationship with the community of Cheltenham Township and surrounding neighborhoods, believing that theatre should both respond to the needs and desires of the community it serves, as well as surprise and entertain it. To that end, we wish to be in continuous dialogue with our audience, and look for ways to serve them in a variety of ways. 
  • to produce first-rate professional theatre which makes our audiences proud, brings honor and recognition to the Township and provokes our artists to new artistic heights. 

Theatre Fore!

 What’s our theatre for?

  • it’s for good entertainment!
  • it’s for spiritual nourishment!
  • it’s for community connection!

 Theatre Fore! brings first rate professional theatre to Cheltenham Township. We explore theatre with a ”spiritual bent”, both comic and dramatic. Sometimes that means producing great plays about religious traditions or spiritual investigations. And – believing that a play performed is a spiritual event, binding actor and audience in a communion – sometimes it’s enough to bring people together for a good time. 

We also provide classes for young and old in acting of various styles, taught by the same professional artists who perform in and direct our plays. Our classes are designed to be flexible enough to serve families’ busy and unpredictable schedules. We offer easy make up lessons and competitive pricing.

 Mostly, we want to make Cheltenham Township proud, interact with the amazing variety of faith traditions practiced here, and engage in an on-going dialogue with our audience around the question: what do you think theatre’s for? 

Whew. So glad those didn’t make it to the press. But these marked a new interest: a direct connection to the local community I am living in. And I continue to see a consistency in my own interests. I began to understand that a mission statement doesn’t so much describe the institution being made, but rather the person or people making it. This has helped me feel less fraudulent. I can see that my life describes an investigation of some consistent ideas, albeit from different angles and in different contexts. This is what Quakers call letting your life speak, and it’s how Quakers form spiritual ideas: by noticing their own behavior when they are most spirit-led. It’s an evidenced-based spiritual code called Testimonies. This long exercise, I see now, is an effort to understand my own artistic testimonies to the world. These I am trying to put into words, as a mission statement for White Pines.

Later in 2008, I read Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift.  That book planted the seed for the radical economic notion I am intent on testing in practice. His thesis: that the market economy fundamentally changes art and artists when art is treated as a commodity, and that when art is thought of, given and received, as a gift, art and artist are similarly transformed. I recognized these ideas as ones I had wrestled with in my book The Actor’s Way, in which one of the two lead characters, Alice Jones, critiques the life of an actor from an economic perspective, as she describes the demise of an actor named Bob she once knew:

The game you are playing with agents and casting directors in New York is an old one and it never ends. Its rules are formed by that ghastly intelligence on display in Times Square – its name is Commerce. Bob had become a thing, a thing that wanted to be bought, but he couldn’t find a buyer, though he had been trying most of his adult life. No wonder the Puritans compared actors to prostitutes. It is a comparison we acquiesce to by playing this game. What a travesty that theatre, which celebrates humanity above all other arts, should be so reduced to a mechanism by which people are bought and sold.

I have come to the conclusion that the company I want to create isn’t one with a creative mission at it’s center, but rather an economic one. Here is draft 1:

White Pines is dedicated the creation of new works or productions in the performing arts, new multi-media and print publications, arts education for adults and children and novel community engagement.

White Pines believes that all art is a gift and therefore should never be sold. Therefore, White Pines seeks to create a new economic paradigm for artists in which:

  1. Artists are economically supported and,
  2. No tickets are sold, and no admission fees are charged, for any of our work or classes.

White Pines will utilize intensive community relationships, novel arrangements with businesses and non-profit institutions, and philanthropic support to achieve these economic goals. 

Aesthetically, White Pines does not believe in the concepts of “good” nor “bad” art, and therefore is not bound to any style, genre or period. We seek to create educational and creative environments in which aesthetically critical judgment is absent, and students and artists are instead supported for their unique gifts and visions. 

We seek to be as open in our training and artistic development as we are to our audiences, inviting participation and inspiration from all people and everywhere, believing that everyone – young and old, and regardless of personal circumstances – has the potential to be creative, and that creativity has the potential to transform lives.

My Quaker faith peeks through all this, of course. The Quaker concept of continuing revelation steers away from any notion that inspiration, spiritual or otherwise, ended with the death of any prophet or the printing of any book. Everything is changing all time and everything is spiritual all the time. And the society of Friends, of course, was founded as a reaction against institutions, principally, the institution of the Anglican Church. And Quakers  – in Philadelphia at least – embrace a universalist position to worship. We welcome everyone.

I sense the entwining of three essential threads in my life as White Pines comes more and more clearly into being: the personal, the artistic and the spiritual. What do you see?

PS: White Pines Productions is NOT a nudist theatre company . . . yet ;-)