A Necessary Theater

By Megan Sandberg-Zakian

I feel very lucky to be part of the greater Boston theater community, and especially right now as Stage Source asks us to respond to Diane Ragsdale’s call for arts organizations to “stop selling excellence and start brokering relationships between people and art.” Considering Ragsdale’s words, I am reminded of the words of one of our great American humanists, John Dewey, who warned of the dangers of separating “art” from our daily lived experience.  In Art as Experience, Dewey wrote that as recently as a century or two ago, and certainly before that, bowls, chairs, and other everyday objects were both artful and useful – a necessary part of daily life. Stroll through any modern museum and you will see those same objects lit up in glass boxes. Museums, Dewey offers, are a tool for separating art from experience and making it a memorial to the rise of imperialism and capitalism, thereby introducing both the idea that art is separate from experience (and that, as an elevated cultural sphere, it is expensive). Dewey writes that those who care about art must think in a more holistic way:

“Mountain peaks do not float unsupported; they do not even just rest upon the earth. They are the earth in one of its manifest operations. It is the business of those who are concerned with the theory of the earth, geographers and geologists, to make this fact evident in its various implications. The theorist who would deal philosophically with fine art has a like task to accomplish… In order to understand the meaning of artistic products, we have to forget them for a time, to turn aside from them and have recourse to the ordinary forces and conditions of experience that we do not usually regard as esthetic.”

To artists, art always seems necessary, because it is our life and our livelihood, and because we are usually surrounded by others who value the work that we do. But what happens when we assume that our work is valuable, is positive in some kind of larger sense? Of theatres which give away tickets to underprivileged kids, or whoever, in an attempt to give a new audience the gift of the theatre, director Peter Brook writes: “Behind all attempts to reach new audiences there is a secret patronage – ‘you too can come to the party’ – and like all patronage, it conceals a lie. The lie is the implication that the gift is worth receiving. Do we really believe in its worth?”

Brook’s answer is no – that when we hold “Art” apart from daily life, and deem it “good,” when we forget that the mountains are the earth, we uphold a deadly separation, a division which “can never change so long as culture or any art is simply an appendage on living, separable from it and, once separated, obviously unnecessary.” In The Empty Space, Brook asks:

“Why theatre at all? What for? Is it an anachronism, a superannuated oddity, surviving like an old monument or a quaint custom? Why do we applaud, and what? Has the stage a real place in our lives? What function can it have? What could it serve? What could it explore? What are its special properties?”

As someone interested in making art that is more than “an appendage on living,” I feel a strong responsibility to answer these questions – and to live up to the answers, imperfect and constantly shifting as they may be. Otherwise, how can I in good conscience continue to spend my personal resources of time and energy on the practice of theater-making? How can I vote for politicians who promise to spend our communal resources on the arts? How can I ask a private foundation to underwrite my work, when it has the option to lend its support to affordable housing, environmental protection, or progressive education? If I cannot say why the work is alive, vital, rather than an old monument, then why should I be surprised when audiences treat it like a quaint custom? Most crucially, if I cannot say why this work is necessary, how can I ask audiences to pay for it and sit through it?  Questions inevitably lead to more questions, but we must “point articulately” (as Anne Bogart says) to what we believe in if we want it to be seen, heard, valued… and, perhaps, in some small but critical way, incorporated back into the realm of experience, the realm of necessity.

Dewey (writing in 1934), Brook (in 1968), and Ragsdale (in 2010), all warn us against using “excellence,” or a myth of elevated aesthetic purity, to separate the mountains from the earth. No matter how beautiful or well-made this kind of art is, it is not actually necessary. All of us – artists, arts organizations, funders, critics – need to closely examine our assumptions about what makes “excellent” art. How do we resist the entrenched hierarchies (is a play at a senior center less “excellent” than a play at Lincoln Center?) and the economics that follow them? How do we appropriately assess a “slow art” movement?  In the slow food movement, a tomato gains cache for being organic and locally grown as well as for being delicious – in other words, both process and product count in assessing excellence. The tomato becomes more meaningful, more worth eating, because of where it comes from and how it was made. Can our theater critics begin to ask some of these questions?

I am inspired by companies that make it clear that excellent art, like an excellent tomato, is best made through an ethical, caring, and visible process – like Washington D.C.’s Liz Lerman Dance Company, with it’s groundbreaking non-hierarchical artist/administration model and its demonstrated track record of creating “excellent” concert-quality works in collaboration with non-dancers in community settings, the healthy, sustainable theater-making at San Diego’s Mo’olelo Theatre which includes paying everyone a living wage and investigating less toxic, lower environmental impact avenues to design and production, and the Twin Cities’ Ten Thousand Things, which gathers the most in-demand actors in the region to perform Shakespeare and other sophisticated texts in non-traditional performance venues such as homeless shelters and prisons. All three of these companies have received the highest acclaim for the quality of their artistic work, and all are eloquent in their belief that their work is as good as it is because of their “slow-art” process, not in spite it.

Here in Boston, I am inspired by Company One, whose smart and gutsy productions of contemporary plays have won them local fans and, recently, national acclaim – they are, certainly, “excellent.” Behind the scenes, Company One is quietly redefining structures of non-profit arts administration, underlining the inseparability of aesthetics and politics, and almost singlehandedly developing and supporting a new generation of young artists of color in Boston.
I am excited by the slow-art challenge – to make theater that points articulately to what we believe in, that seeks a more holistic definition of “excellence,” incorporated into rather than elevated from our daily lived experience. The resulting performances will be like a truly fantastic tomato – not particularly pretty, surprisingly magical, and absolutely necessary.

About the author

Megan Sandberg-Zakian is a director, writer, and educator based in Providence, RI. She can currently be found in Cambridge directing Underground Railway Theatre’s production of Derek Walcott’s “Ti Jean and His Brothers,” or online at megansz.com.

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