As we roll into May, you can hear the sighs of relief. Season budgets for the new year have been approved, titles announced, brochures mailed and campaigns launched. Now, with stages dark, the summer comes, bringing time to relax, reflect, renew.
Whoa! This doesn’t sound like your situation? In fact, this characterization of summer belies both the achievement and the challenges of American theatre as it is practiced today. It ignores the wealth of summer theatres that populate our country, whether the proverbial summer stock where young talent is tested and bred, or the rich tapestry of outdoor dramas that blanket the country, from historical pageants and Shakespeare to more contemporary fare. Increasingly, resident theatres that once confined themselves to school-year schedules are filling summer, whether by extending main facility activity or moving to summer venues and summer seasons. Is it any wonder we hear more and more about field burnout and fatigue?
It was with this in mind that TCG convened our first meeting designed to address renewal. With the consultation of the extraordinary Robert Maurer and Ronnie Brooks, our participants spent two days in Houston exploring what renewal really means, what reinvigoration of the creative spirit involves. While almost anything I can report in this space will oversimplify and reduce the complexity and insight of our time together, three things are worth pondering here:
- Burnout arises with separation from our core values. While not minimizing physical fatigue, most of us admit that we can work on something that deeply matters to us for 18 hours at a stretch and feel only the pleasure of fatigue, while three hours spent on something we dislike or feel unengaged by leaves us feeling irritable, exhausted and dispirited. To what degree is our collective sense of fatigue linked to this disconnect? How do we keep connected to the work that brought us to our professions in the first place? In our field, blessed with gifted managers, there are too many stories about administrators who can no longer find the time to sit in the rehearsal hall, watch the performances, read play scripts or share artistic perceptions with their artistic partners. I doubt whether a single manager went into the business because of love of management—it was their passion for theatre that drew our managers to their organizations, and we cannot be surprised when they leave the field when their jobs divorce them from the art form they love.
- Renewal is a discipline. It is a spiritual muscle of sorts that can be cultivated and must be exercised regularly. It is not reparative; it is generative and building. It is individualistic. And most importantly, it is not an “add-on”; it can only be achieved by systematic pursuit, by regular rhythm. The most insistent question Ronnie asks when confronted with “renewal fever”—that first flush of enthusiasm about all the things one anticipates undertaking to achieve renewal in a daily way—is: “What are you going to give up?”
- Renewal is linked to risk. Now before anyone jumps up in alarm, let me simply say that “risk” and “irresponsibility” are not synonymous in my book. Risk is a push past one’s comfort zone—an exploration of unknown territory, a responsible act of bravery that dares to go beyond traditional limitations. This seems to be a vital component in every renewal in our lives—whether we are talking about an actor’s breakthrough into a new depth of acting or a playwright’s reinvigoration or an organization’s breakthrough into new patterns of behavior or even the renewal of our personal romantic relationships. There cannot be renewal without risk.
It’s precisely this willingness to risk that makes me so admire David Hare and his new book, Acting Up, reviewed in these pages. Steven Drukman, our reviewer, evaluates the book in terms of its critical analysis of Via Dolorosa, and rightly finds it unsatisfying. Hare is often inconsistent, fitful, unpredictable. But if you read Acting Up as I did—not as a production analysis but as a traveler’s log in renewal and risk—I think you’ll find the very shortcomings Steve identified to be its strengths. Yes, Hare is inconsistent, fitful and unpredictable—just as the creative process is. But he is also unsparingly generous, candid and, to my mind, immensely inspiring—an artist who risks, who puts himself onto the stage in a new way, assuming the burden of the actor for the first time in his career, who experiences all the frustrations, insecurities and conflicting moments of the creative process. In essence, Hare takes risks—and consequently finds himself renewed and ultimately changed forever.
As a field, we do not risk enough. I find myself increasingly anxious to engage in this work and all that it requires—serious, disciplined thinking; careful identification and consistent connection to core values; the establishment of a routine that can feed the body and the soul. In part, my motives are selfish ones: I want a rich, satisfying life—and I am struck by the report of the three things retirees most regretted about their lives: that they didn’t take more risks, that they didn’t reflect more and that they weren’t clearer about the purpose of their lives. I don’t want to be one of those retirees.
At the same time, I believe that individuals who personally renew are integral to organizations that renew—that deep connections to core values, regular reflection and disciplined thinking lie at the heart of any organization’s health and help ensure its survival. It’s hard work and far too easy to ignore, but it is work we must undertake, individually and collectively, if we hope to survive the long haul.