The Joy of Producing Some Lovely Thing and Freeing Some Craving for Expression
By Dudley Cocke
Lecture to the Biennial State Arts Conference
Des Moines, IA
March 25, 2000
My prepared remarks are divided into two parts: Past and Future.
It's January 16, 1936, here in Des Moines, Iowa. At the Shrine Temple Auditorium, the curtain is about to rise on the encore performance of the opera, The Bohemian Girl. Regina Steele, 12 years old, dressed in a blue uniform, steps from the wings and, in a clear voice that carries to the last person in the audience of 4,000, reads the lines of the prologue that presents the principal characters and brings the story of the opera to the second act. The cast of 150 are from Polk Co., Shelby Co., Hardin Co., Story Co., Black Hawk Co., Butler Co. , Cherokee, Chickasaw — in fact, the cast represents 50 of your 100 counties. And they are all farm girls and boys, farm men and women. Twelve-year-old Regina Steele is wearing her blue 4H uniform.
"Who can measure the rewards of such an event?" wrote Marjorie Patten at the time. "Perhaps the greatest value lies in the rich experience of each person who took part in it, the growth through good training, the joy of having had a part in producing a lovely thing and the freeing of some craving for expression." As one cast member put it, "We have no new linoleum on the kitchen floor, but we have sung in opera!"
I am so pleased that yesterday you inaugurated the Robert Gard Lecture. Robert Gard made his last presentation on community arts on October 10, 1992, at the national symposium on grassroots theater that I and several others organized at Cornell University. Robert, sick for some time, lived, I was told by his daughter, to make the presentation. This is how he described to us finding his vision; he was 27 years old, fresh from the Midwest, studying under Cornell's redoubtable Alexander Drummond:
I paused as I thought of the rural life that I knew in Kansas, of the wheat fields, of the mighty machines biting through yellow grain, of the harvest parties, and of the wild singing and dancing. I thought of New York State grape pickers singing on a steep hillside, of a farm mother holding a little child against her breast, of the terror of a violent storm, and of faces full of suffering from pain and lost crops. As I stood thinking, the great Butternut Valley that was all around me turned golden in the afternoon light. I looked at the hills, and suddenly my spirit was filled and lifted with a clear knowledge. I knew that there must be plays of the people filled with the spirit of places, and my aimless activities assumed meaning. I felt the conviction then that I have maintained since — that the knowledge and love of place is a large part of the joy in people's lives. There must be plays that grow from all the countrysides of America, fabricated by the people themselves, born of toiling hands and free minds, born of music and love and reason. There must be many great voices singing out the lore and legend of America from a thousand hilltops, and there must be students to listen and to learn, and writers encouraged to use the materials.
Two years after Robert Gard's Butternut Valley vision, at midnight on June 30, 1939, only four years after its inception, the Federal Theatre Project was closed by an Act of Congress. In its first two years, it had presented 42,000 performances to an audience of more than 20 million people. According to the Theatre Project's meticulous audience surveys, 65 percent of those attending were seeing a live play for the first time. Federal Theatre Project national director, Hallie Flanagan (played infectiously by Cherry Jones in the current Hollywood/Tim Robbins movie,The Cradle Will Rock), put the federal program's aims succinctly: "national in scope, regional in emphasis, and democratic in attitude."
For some in power, the Project was too successful, especially in creating a vast national theater audience that came together across lines of race, class, religion and geography. The Congressional Dies and Woodrum committees investigated and red-baited.
On that last night of the Federal Theatre Project, Yasha Frank at the Ritz Theatre in New York wrote a new ending for Pinocchio. In this last performance, Pinocchio did not become a living boy, the reward for having overcome his greed and selfishness, but instead turned back into a puppet. As the stagehands tore down the play's set in full view of the audience, Pinocchio was placed in a pine box with the epitaph: "Born December 23, 1938; killed by Act of Congress, June 30, 1939." Then a funeral procession bearing Pinocchio proceeded out of the Ritz Theatre onto the New York City streets.
Congressmen Dies and Woodrum would be succeeded in the years after the Second World War by a senator from Wisconsin named McCarthy and in our own time by a senator from North Carolina.
Let's now change continents, to Africa, fast forward to 1986 — Africa still struggling to emerge from more than a century of colonial domination. The angry voice is Kenyan playwright, Ngugi wa Thiong'o. His subject is the suppression of a whole people's culture in favor of the systematic imposition of the colonizer's culture, a process he dubs "the cultural bomb." I read his words as both testimony and warning to us here today:
The effect of the cultural bomb is to annihilate a people's belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities, and ultimately in themselves. It makes them see their past as one wasteland of non-achievement and it makes them want to distance themselves from that wasteland. It makes them want to identify with that which is furthest removed from themselves; for instance, with other peoples' languages rather than their own. It makes them identify with that which is decadent and reactionary, all those forces which would stop their own springs of life. It even plants serious doubts about the moral rightness of struggle. Possibilities of triumph or victory are seen as remote, ridiculous dreams. The intended results are despair, despondency, a collective death-wish.
Mindful of the joy and despair of the last century and Ngugi wa Thiong'o's warning, let us now move forward, hopefully. What will the arts look like early in the new millennium? A proposition: In the U.S. in the next 25 years cyberspace will be the decisive factor in the triumph of participation and access in the performing arts as people compensate for the virtual and passive qualities of pervasive cyber mediums.
Art production and presentation will be transformed as the public longs and then demands to participate and to connect as a community. We know that there is a long, deep art-making and presenting tradition based on access, participation and communing. However, in the U.S. since the death of the Federal Theatre Project, this tradition has been shoved to the margins. After the Second World War and as the 20th century wore on, the corporations that came to dominate our economy increasingly valued efficiency more than participation, mobility more than attachment to place, short-term gain more than sustainability — and, for the most part, nonprofit corporations, including arts organizations, have subscribed to these same values.
For example, the standard production model in the nonprofit theater industry is the assembly line: the various parts (mostly people in the case of the performing arts) are brought from wherever to a central location (the theater) where they are assembled in a three- or four-week period into a final product, which is then marketed to arts consumers. The play's director interprets the production blueprint; the resident artistic director is quality control. Increasingly, this cog-in-the-wheel process is proving unsatisfactory to audiences and artists alike. This dissatisfaction is a result of our social need to build and live in real neighborhoods, and the new omnipresence in our lives of cyber mediums only feeds this need. After all, we Homo sapiens are by instinct social animals, and virtual reality alone will not satisfy our nature.
The arts field probably can already sense this new zeitgeist, although few of us appear to be revising our programs accordingly. This lack of response by managers, artists, presenters and funders to rapid change should concern us, because as any Darwinian will tell you, when challenged by change, the fatal response is denial. At this very time when we should be innovating and experimenting broadly (not just in some narrow, avant-garde manner), we have become uptight, hesitant to take risks. Let's hope this soon changes. Each of us here should immediately consider strategies to prompt experimentation, rational innovation, and cumulative learning in all aspects of the arts in our communities.
Based on my theory of cyber compensation, here is a sampling of what we are likely to see soon in the arts.
Arts participation, especially amateur participation, will increase, and in the arts amateur will reclaim its positive connotation. Notice amateur has held onto its positive meaning in the ever popular sports world — remember how irked we became when the former Soviet Union sent professionals to compete in the Olympics? Cyber will give us our fill of watching; more and more of us will want to participate — as singers, costumers, storytellers, dancers, stage managers, and so forth.
Performance spaces will become more intimate, their architecture more sensual and less controlling. Theaters will be smaller, and new public spaces will be claimed by artists and communities. For example, in the past five years an increasing number of my theater's touring performances have occurred in churches.
Local life will increasingly become more aware of itself as participation increases and amateur artists see that there is real grass (history, drama, viable artistic tradition) right in their own community. I fantasize this realization coming en masse, in a convulsive moment, as millions of us, gathered and mute in front of the tube, its electronic colors flickering on our faces, watch just one too many TV nature shows.
Word of mouth and word on the Net will replace our flagging marketing strategies, and provide new access. No problem to download at home a brief performance scene of the current production, an interview with its leading actor, or the comments of last night's audience members, as we decide whether or not to key in our online reservation for the evening performance.
There will be a new eclecticism as many of the old either/or arts arguments of the mechanical age — for example between high-brow and low-brow art — are mothballed in the new digital age. Saturday night one might gleefully attend a choral concert, and Sunday afternoon think nothing out of order to participate in a three-hour shape-note sing. Each event will be appreciated on its own terms: shape-note singing for the beauty and truth of young and old, adept and novice, singing together in a structured way that supports the quality of the performance, which, incidentally, unlike the previous evening's concert, blurs the line between performance and rehearsal because of the high value placed on access and participation.
Finally, the astounding capacity of cyberspace to provide information will continue to increase the demand for meaning — the metier of the arts.
A month ago, Julie asked me what was going to be the gist of this presentation. I said I hoped in some small way what I offered would help each of us to believe more in our own creativity and the creativity of our neighbors; help us find the resolve to explore community-wide cultural events that include many voices, especially those too often silent; to value more our local traditions and history; and to use art to grapple frankly with our community problems and issues. I believe that there is a kind of joy to be found in doing such work, and that it is a joy that Iowa has known: the joy of producing some lovely thing and freeing some craving for expression.
One final thought: There will be no Golden Age of Art in the U.S. without broad citizen participation.
Dudley Cocke is Artistic Director of Roadside Theater in central Appalachia. Before presenting his prepared remarks, Cocke told stories (mostly humorous) about the beginnings of Appalshop and Roadside Theater. He then described the previous night's New York City premiere of his company's musical theater collaboration with an African-American theater from New Orleans and a Puerto Rican theater from the South Bronx.
Original CAN/API publication: April 2000