White Pines: The Republican theater company?

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Relax, the title of this post is a joke. Someone in Philly tried recently to create a Republican theater company and I recall seeing heated exchanges in various electronic fora about it. Anyone who knows me knows I hate labels. Years ago I lamented about Quaker labels, in which the terms “liberal” and “conservative” actually stand for the reverse of traditional usage (“liberal” meetings adhere to an older from of Quakerism; “conservative” meetings represent an innovative break from tradition). a3a40eaf1d683d194de2a2cac856d183But allow me to wax political for a moment.

Both my grandfathers were Republicans, and the party they were members of no longer exists. As I understand it, it was a political party that stood for personal responsibility, limited government intrusion into our personal and professional lives, fiscal restraint and limited taxation, and a cautious foreign policy bordering on isolationism. This was the party of Dwight Eisenhower, and if it existed today (and some Libertarians will say, it does, we resurrected it), I would still be a left-leaning Democrat. But there is much about this old, grey-suited Republican party of my grandfathers that I respect. Now I’m going to piss you off: I think many artists could learn a thing or two from my Grampies.

In the first post of this series, I write about some of the ways capitalism hurts the creative person, in that we adopt commercial value systems for the art we make without even realizing it, which leads to the dead-end of commodification. Now let me sing the praises of the self-reliant entrepreneur, the small businessperson, the person my Grampies regarded as the quintessential American hero, and the one their party was designed to protect and support. The first thing such a person has is an idea, or a vision, or a goal. Then, they look for an environment which presents opportunity for their idea. Where can they open up their shop, and sell what they make to a community that needs it. Where is the demand for their product? Once they locate this place, then they need to get the word out – they advertise. They go door to door. They join rotaries and chambers of commerce. Money? They convince a bank to lend. They beg from their families. They sell their valuables – because they are on a mission They are seized by the same personal stake in their project that I argue in the previous post is required of all artistic projects: #allinornothing. What a terrifying and glorious way to live – right on the edge of disaster, until you taste success, or drop into the gutter.

Many artists live in an fantasyland of entitlement and passive blame-iness. This is one of the nasty outgrowths of the narcissism necessary for the birth of an artist: if left unchecked, unexamined, un-transformed into service, then we end up with a person who makes beautiful art and whines when no one will pay for it. A long line of “money jobs” keeps this artist alive, so that she can make art in her bubble of purity, bitching and moaning about how no one understands or values her art, which is why she has to work these stupid money jobs. Hyde describes this in The Gift as the artist living in two economies simultaneously – a gift economy for art, and a commercial economy for survival. White Pines is about bringing them together. Seemingly in opposition, they are in fact represented by that symbol that ends the second post in this series. By the way, Elizabeth Hyde Stevens is exploring this truth in her book which studies the career of Jim Hensen. navel

Listen, we all begin our artistic journeys staring at our own belly-buttons, and marveling at what we find there, and rejoicing in the way we can transform it into movement, color, language, or expressive feeling. All that is fine and good. But when Saturn returns around age 30, someone or something has to grab us by the ears and force us to look up and out – at the world around us as it really is. In my case, it was bottoming out on alcohol and drugs, and the awesome power of the 12 steps and the rooms of recovery. My narcissism was deeply connected to my addiction: poor me, drink, poor me, snort, poor me, smoke, poor me, pass out. I had to reflect on the grave I was approaching rather quickly, and then decide to make a change. Artists who turn this corner – from narcissism to service – each have their own version of this “come to Jesus” passage. It’s painful, because it is about killing and burying an innocent and naive version of artistic creativity and growing the fuck up. Here’s an interesting article on narcissism. It points out how creative and charismatic we are – and the pain we are in. The secret to making your art make money is in turning it outward and embracing it as a service to the community(s) you serve. 

A director I worked with once had the Aunt Mildred test: whatever he made, he made for his Aunt Mildred, a sober and middle-class American woman with simple tastes and practical concerns. And if his Aunt Mildred came and saw a rehearsal and didn’t get it, or didn’t like it, he knew he had failed. “But Ben,” I recall him saying, “you would be amazed at some of what she liked and enjoyed – really weird shit I directed. Peer Gynt. A play by Meyerhold. A brutal Mamet play called Edmond. And some other stuff I thought she’d like, she shrugged and went ‘Eh . . . ‘ ” Of course, Aunt Mildred didn’t come and see every dress rehearsal of everything he ever directed. But he had internalized something vitally important and too often missing from the world-view of the contemporary artist: there is an audience who wants what we make, and is willing to pay for it, but they are not other artists. If we are making something for someone, then we are making it for them, not us. We are making it for Aunt Mildred.

Aunt Mildred?

White Pines proposes that part of the obligation for the artist, if she wants to be supported economically by the world, is to find out what the world wants and then make it for them. This is called entrepreneurial initiative. This is called seizing a market. This is called answering a call. Too often, artists stand in large dark rooms and wait to be recognized as fabulous. Confronted with the necessity of service, he recoils. “If all I’m doing is giving the masses what they want, doesn’t my creativity vanish?” No – because there is the yang to the yin. Yes – if all you do is give people what they want, and deny your own creative vision, you might as well not be an artist. But see, this you being trapped in dualism again: it’s either/or. But it’s not. It’s both/and. It just might take a little longer to do it all, and you may need to make some time for the service component of your work. If you give your community what they want (classes, murals, house parties, free concerts and play readings), then you are building community equity for that moment when you say to them – now, take a look at what I’ve been making. And because they have fallen in love with you, they will fall in love with what you’ve made, even if they don’t quite get it.

White Pines never set out to become a place where people with learning disabilities and special needs take acting class. But a neighbor with a daughter on the autism spectrum wanted us to do that, and she supported us in learning how. And now we have a class of eleven kids with special needs, two teachers making $600 each, and group of grateful families who want to know more about us. And those two teachers are in Bright Invention – the White Pines Ensemble,  and they act with us at least twice per month.

Recently, another neighbor I approached to host a fundraiser for White Pines turned me down. “I’m just not enthusiastic about the arts,” she said, “I’m more about feeding the hungry.” Not until we are able to make the case that we are “feeding the hungry” will we be a viable enterprise. Lying under her statement is a widely-held, and somewhat deserved attitude about art and artists: that we are not essential, we play on the outskirts of meaning and necessity, we are self-involved dilettantes. In order to prove her wrong, in order to make the case that we are essential, we have some work to do: work in the service of our communities, work that will actually make us some money, work that we may regard initially as drudgery, but which will actually transform us and build a loyal following to sustain us into the future. “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and do what needs to be done,” my Republican Grampy might have said. And he’s right.

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  • In what ways is your project a service to others?
  • In what ways is your relationship to promotion passive, in what ways active?
  • How can you imagine “selling” your creativity to your community?