Contributed by Morgan Jenness
It's a question I often ask myself, even more now in a world increasingly filled with earthquakes, tsunami, human made environmental disasters, massacres of freedom fighters, wars, famine, hate and greed as political agenda and a myriad of human sorrows.
Isn't theater a luxury - as I heard one established director tell a roomful of young directors?
Doesn't the supply outstrip the demand, as a major cultural leader recently stated?
Like the Temptations song about War - what is it good for? Absolutely nothing?
Perhaps, in many incarnations it is indeed nothing other than an expensive (and often less satisfactory) entertainment option for a tiny sliver of privileged population - but I think that's show business - which I believe can incorporate theater but is very different.
A brilliant young songwriter/performer I know stated that he thought the purpose of theater, and art in general, was to "interrupt habit" - which I think is true.
The habit of how we view ourselves and others in the world. The habit of our lizard brain fears. The habit of our consumptive values. The habit of our disconnection from the depth and breadth and height of our potential humanity.
I have been thinking a lot about Ellen Stewart recently - someone who was always a bit of a role model for me in many ways. Although I was essentially theatrically raised by my "papa" Joe Papp and the amazing people around him, and shaped by the original Public Theater's extraordinary vision - Ellen and La Mama's broad, multi theatrical, diverse, international and community connected vision always inspired me and certainly also was a huge influence in how I still think about the role of the theater in people's lives.
So, I still - and perhaps more than ever - believe that the arts (and especially theater as a live, audience participatory event which can collide all the arts) have a central role in human existence as they are key to reminding us that our existence IS human - in its most profound positive meaning. And that we are humans living amongst and connected to other humans - including ones we will never meet but need to profoundly know. There are artists who do that work with fierce political directness. (insert your own list here - certainly Belarus Free Theater is a current example) There are the artists who deal more with the fanning of the flame of the human spirit, awakening a depth of thinking, a breadth of compassionate understanding and connection, and a height of human aspiration. (insert) Artists who can find a celebratory spark and remind us we can radiate. (insert)
I still see the shimmer of what fueled people like Ellen Stewart and Joe Papp all around - it certainly is there in each and every person with whom I make the choice and have the honor to work. Although there are certainly still pinnacle artists and leaders whom I find inspirational I think, like our political situation, it's more about a collective responsibility than a following of a charismatic individual for me. And it is about the awakening of the artist spark that lives somehow in every human being, the part of us which itself appreciates art. The part of us which, as the angel longing to be human in WINGS OF DESIRE says with eloquent simplicity, that wants to go "ooo" and "ah" and "oh" If only for a moment of full human recognition.
And I still think the arts, especially theater, can operate for us as Perseus' Shield…a reflective surface in which we can clearly see the face of the Medusa of destruction and paralysis in order to rid it of its power - and, in truly reflecting the world, can change it.
Morgan Jenness has worked as a literary manager, director of play development and associate producer at the New York Shakespeare Festival, and Associate Artistic Director at NYTW and LATC. She has worked as a dramaturg, workshop director, and/or artistic consultant for theaters, funders and new play programs across the country and as a creative consultant at both Helen Merrill Ltd and Abrams Artists Agency. In 2003, Ms. Jenness was presented with an Obie Award Special Citation for Longtime Support of Playwrights.