Remarks to Renewing Democratic Civil Society, The Centennial Assembly of the Commonwealth Club
San Francisco, CA - February 27-28, 2003
Good morning. As Rich DeLeon just said, place matters. I'm from the Appalachian Mountain coalfields, near Harlan and Hazard, Kentucky, where southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia, and upper Tennessee back-up on one another. When I got started making talks like this, I asked a preacher for advice: First, son, you tell them what you're going to tell them, then you tell them, then you tell them what you told them. So, I'm going to begin with the assumption underlying my thesis, then state and illustrate my thesis, and conclude.
Here we are in a room above Market Street, Homo sapiens, the storytelling animals. As a species, language is our chief selective advantage, and the stories that we tell ourselves and others, those that we can understand and imagine, define what is possible in our individual and collective lives. Without our stories, how will we know it's us? And without hearing and reading and seeing the stories of others, how will we know who they are?
If you believe this about the centrality, for humans, of language and story, as I do, you understand that the arts and humanities, practiced democratically, are the sine qua non, the irreducible ingredient, of civil society. If our civil society is presently at risk, then so must be our arts and humanities. And I think that this is precisely the case.
Here is my thesis: The arts and humanities have put themselves between a rock and a hard place which prevents them from reaching, in a meaningful way, the majority of Americans. The rock: Now 80% of the audience for the not-for-profit performing arts is the wealthiest 15% of the population. And the hard place: In our popular culture, which is a product of our mass media, the arts and humanities are edited to make money. (Have you heard about the new Beverly Hillbillies reality T.V. show that CBS is planning? They're presently conducting a "hick hunt" to find the right poor family for us to laugh at.) Whether such programs tell us anything about ourselves or others is irrelevant. And yet, doesn't a civil society absolutely depend on this effort to know one another and ourselves?
Fortunately, there is a pocket of possibility between this rock of elitism and this hard place of venal numbness -- a third arts and humanities sector, mostly overlooked or dismissed by our institutions, where resilience exists, where democratic promise resides. It is the unincorporated sector of non-professional humanists and artists (dare they even call themselves artists and humanists?): The millions of Americans who sing in choirs; who write poetry, plays, memoirs, and fiction; who dance; who avidly study history and literature; who craft meaning and beauty with their hands and eyes. Robert Putnam and his book, Bowling Alone, have been mentioned often during this assembly. When I was interviewed by Mr. Putnam, his first question was what happened to the community theaters of his youth, when neighbors got together to put on plays?
Let me tell you several stories to illustrate the great promise of this unincorporated, so-called amateur sector. Thirty-odd years ago, a famous folksinger from California came to the coalfields of central Appalachia to perform in a high school auditorium. A big crowd was on hand as a local string band opened the concert. The local folk musicians, rising to the occasion, had the audience's rapt attention. I'm told that you could hear a pin drop. The famous folksinger followed with some success. Backstage, she made a point to congratulate the local band on their performance, noting that she, too, often sang from the same Appalachian song book. She went on to say how keenly the audience had been listening to their music and wondered what their secret was. "What is that little something extra you seem to have?" she asked repeatedly, each time more emphatically. The so-called amateur band kindly looked at the floor as she pressed for an answer. Finally the fiddle player spoke up, "Well ma'am, the only difference that I could tell was that you were playing out front of them ol' songs, and we were right behind 'em."
Ralph Ellison in "The Charlie Christian Story," deftly spins the fiddler's point:
There is a cruel contradiction implicit in the art form itself. For true jazz is an art of individual assertion within and against the group. Each true jazz moment (as distinct from the uninspired commercial performance) springs from a context in which each artist challenges all the rest, each solo flight, or improvisation, represents (like the successive canvases of a painter) a definition of his identity: as individual, as member of the collectivity, and as link in the chain of tradition. Thus, because jazz finds its very life in an endless improvisation upon traditional materials, the jazzman must lose his identity even as he finds it.
I am a member of a 27 year old traveling theater company, a merry, sometimes depressed, band of thespians whose core activity is conceptualizing, writing, staging, and touring plays. None of us were trained in our craft by the academy. We studied theater in our church services; sitting around telling stories, recounting family and community histories, swapping tall tales and jokes; singing and playing music with our kin and neighbors.
One of our long-standing collaborators is the African American Junebug Productions, based in New Orleans, and one of our co-creations, Junebug/Jack, is about the historical and present-day relationships between black and white working class southerners. As we toured the United States, naturally we wanted black and white working-class people to attend the play. The problem is that black and white working-class people do not typically go out together (or separately, for that matter) to the professional theater.
Our solution was to ask the sponsors of Junebug/Jack, which is a musical, to pull together a group of singers from different quarters of their community - for example, from their white Methodist church, from their black AME Zion church, from their integrated public high school, and from their women's choir. With their designated musical director, this new community chorus would rehearse the show's music over the course of several months, and then in final rehearsals, I, as the play's director, would stage them into the production. Junebug/Jack would swell from a cast of our six to say twenty-two.
Out of support for their family and friends, as well as curiosity about this new thing happening in their community, large numbers of people showed up for the performances who would not otherwise have attended. And not only did the broader community's presence onstage and in the audience make the play's story more vibrant, the rehearsals brought seemingly unlike people together around their common passion for singing. That prompted some real artistic exchange! And in the process relationships naturally formed, bringing with them insights into the universals that we share.
Subsequently, if enough interest is expressed, which is often the case, we offer to help such a community continue building these relationships. To accomplish this, we developed a methodology that relies on the arts and humanities to stir a community to raise its voice in public. But that is a much longer story. For today, suffice it to say that this methodology rests on the realization that people want to participate and contribute, not just watch and consume. Once the community is engaged, the collective task becomes to maintain an open place in the process for the unexpected and controversial aspects of local life to appear.
People often ask, is Roadside Theater the only group doing such work? Not at all! There are thousands of artists across the nation equally engaged. To begin learning more about them and their work, I recommend www.communityarts.net. Several years ago, in collaboration with the Community Arts Network and the Irvine Foundation, we conducted a research project, Connecting Californians-An Inquiry into the Role of Story in Strengthening Communities. One of our research questions: In your county, have plays about local life been produced in the past five years? In all but one California county (Glenn), the answer was an enthusiastic, yes!
Let me end close to where I began: democracy is built as the community is built--by encouraging citizen participation and by bridging the social lines that want to divide us. What can be more effective at this than the arts and humanities? More than the law, politics, or the economy, a democratic arts and humanities based on participation connects us to our fellow human beings in most powerful ways. Let us fully tap our resource. It is to our advantage to do so.