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ART TIMES April 2009

Due to the solitary and detached bravery of playwrights, it is rather easy to come up with ideas for productions that might land a producer or director in hot water. From the director of a high school, church-based, or community theater group to the artistic director of a professional theater company, choice of repertory sooner or later means making a decision about what sort of material a theater wants to do and what sort of messages a theater wants to deliver.

The question cannot be avoided. Every production delivers a message. The seemingly safe, seemingly innocuous, frothy little musical or comedy sends as clear and plain a message as does the most outrageous or shocking sexual, political, social or religious content. Breaking a taboo sends a message, but observing a taboo also sends a message. Artistic directors can run, but they can’t hide.

The specter of self-censorship constantly raises its ugly head. “I would love to do this play, but the PTA, or the Regents, or the Dean, or the Board of Directors will never stand for it.” Or, “I would love to do this play, but we’ll have picketing outside our doors if we do.” In some countries, “I would love to do this play, but the secret police will be knocking on my door at 3 AM if I do.” Or, more subtly, “I would love to do this play, but our audience will stay at home in droves.”

Is there a way out? Is there an escape? No. You will make decisions about your programming, and those decisions will be influenced by factors beyond the artistic merit of the material. Some yearn for a concept of perfect freedom, in which an artist makes artistic decisions free of any influence, control or constraint. A little thought about the real world quickly reveals that this is a five-year-old’s concept of freedom, not that of a mature adult. The real world imposes constraints of many, many kinds, and no theater company can operate for long without dealing with them. Freedom, in the real world, is not utter license to do as we please; it is much closer to Robert Frost’s famous formula—“moving easy in harness.” Constraints are always there. It’s a matter of how we move within them.

So what is our integrity? Where does it come from? How do we move easy in harness and earn our self-respect? We must serve ourselves, or the sources of our creativity dry up. However, the self isn’t the only player involved. There are other artists, and above all, there is our audience. The great Burmese performer and producer, Po Sein, turned to his audience—literally, by engaging them in dialogue from stage center—over and over again to resolve issues of integrity, such as whether his troupe would play for the occupying Japanese army. Above all, he served his audience as an honest artist must, and served himself and his troupe in so doing.

If a theater has fully developed its role in the community, it occupies a position of leadership. A good leader is in front of the people, but cannot be effective when too far in front. A good leader leads toward where the people need to go, but cannot be effective when taking them toward where they will refuse to be led. Most importantly of all, a good leader is in constant conversation with the people, in a relation of give and take, of teach and learn. The leader who thinks of leadership as exercising sole, unquestioned leadership is a fool and a child, not a leader and mature adult.
That is the relationship we must seek. If we aren’t far enough out front, we are exercising bad judgment and committing self-censorship. If we are too far out in front, or in the wrong direction, we are again exercising bad judgment along with bad leadership. The process must be one of constant questioning, but questioning that seeks and finds answers, in ourselves and in our audience. That is how we move easy in harness.

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