Every Wednesday afternoon, I meet with several actors from TILT Performance Group, a theatre company I co-founded in 2013 and which I currently serve as artistic director. TILT is an Austin-based nonprofit with an especially particular mission: broadly stated, to shatter stereotypes about disability. Our company is composed of paid actors from a wide variety of backgrounds, but all share one commonality: the self-identification of a disability, or multiple ones. From blindness to cerebral palsy, autism to a wide range of cognitive abilities, we don’t discriminate at TILT; all disabilities are acknowledged (including my own, an atrophy of the optic nerves that causes low vision).
Wednesday is one of my favorite days at TILT U, our education branch, because it’s the day that I lead a seminar on performance theory and dramaturgy. If that sounds like a heady get-together for a company comprising actors with disabilities—well, this is one of the ways in which we strive to shatter those stereotypes. The participants in the weekly seminar are curious, intellectual artists who enjoy lively, critical debate around a number of topics. Recently, these have included delving into Theatre of the Oppressed, Theatre of the Absurd, and various other “Theatres of.″
One day, when positing what our COVID-era theatre should be deemed, longtime TILT company member Kristen Gooch offered a compelling option: Theatre of Circumstance. Interesting, we thought. We volleyed the idea around for a bit, considering whether all theatre was, inherently, theatre of circumstance, thus nullifying the proposed moniker. I don’t remember where we left off that Wednesday with Kristen’s suggestion, but it’s something I’ve found myself thinking about with frequency ever since. So, in an effort to avoid taking colloquialisms for granted, I decided to look up the Merriam-Webster definition of “circumstance.”
One definition (sub-definition, rather) struck me. 2b, to be exact: “state of affairs: eventuality.” Eventuality—wow. All of a sudden, I was on a lexical quest worthy of Derrida. “Eventuality: a possible event or outcome. Possibility.” Now we were getting somewhere. Theatre of Circumstance. Theatre of Possibility.
The concept of taking “circumstance” and “possibility” as synonymous was something that stuck for me. What if it were in our circumstances that we sought our eventualities, our possibilities? Sure, many organizations have thoughtfully crafted vision statements, carefully wordsmithed and with authentic intent.
“We envision a future where…”
The more I thought about it, the more I came to realize that TILT’s success might be due in large part to just that: Our company was born of unique circumstance, and through the ensuing years we consistently sought out possibilities relative to these circumstances. Although that might sound like little more than good old-fashioned mission alignment, I think there are some distinct differences.
When many arts nonprofits form, they get down to figuring out right away what their mission will be. And why wouldn’t we? We want to get to work, get our hands dirty, and create a product. That’s what artists do. But I wonder whether the Theatre of Circumstance demands a slightly different trajectory. Perhaps the vision statement should take first place in line on this developmental journey. This got me to thinking that Theatre of Circumstance isn’t necessarily representative of our current times, perhaps, but instead the movement that lies ahead of us. As we pivot to a post-COVID landscape, toward a Theatre of Circumstance and away, at least somewhat, from the theatre of now and of yore, most of our institutions will do well to revisit our vision statements. For many, missions may remain intact. But the Theatre of Circumstance—of Possibility—asks us to turn our eyes toward a new horizon, a new vision.
What it is that we see exactly will remain different for different organizations. The uncertainty of the terrain ahead in the time after COVID will undoubtedly cause visions to feel like mirages for some, appearing hazily in a desert of uncharted sands. Others will have been fortunate that new visions were revealed to them thanks to the pivots that became necessary for their organizations in the midst of this pandemic. Many, if not most, will probably find themselves somewhere in between. As we turn our focus on what is to be done, I propose three broad avenues forward toward a Theatre of Circumstance, a field guided by new vision:
- Theatre of Circumstance is relevant. In her excellent book The Art of Relevance, author Nina Simon (herself hailed as a “museum visionary” by Smithsonian magazine) notes, “It may be true that our work, or our issues, touch everyone. But that doesn’t mean that they matter to everyone. Relevance is relative, and people are busy. Our work is only relevant when people tell us it is. When they feel connected to it. When they believe that it matters.”
We love post-event surveys in the world of the performing arts. Data gleaned from stakeholder feedback are critical for making programming and administrative decisions, and surveys provide us a way to hear directly from the sources in whose opinions we’re interested. But how often do we attempt to discern the relevance of our programming through these or other modes of discernment?
It’s often said that an organization’s mission is its North Star. I propose, then, that the vision is the wide expanse of sky in which that star resides. If our gaze and pursuits are fixed on irrelevant horizons, we’ll miss the mission altogether—because it exists in a different plane in the sky.
I suspect that as we return to our buildings and spaces of performance on the other side of this redefining time, we’ll come to find that what is relevant has changed a great deal since we departed them in March. The Theatre of Circumstance requires us to meet our constituencies anew, to reevaluate the relevance of all facets of work in our theatres, and to evaluate whether our North Star has shifted coordinates, maybe even horizons.
- Theatre of Circumstance “looks awry.”
At TILT, we often talk of our work as “TILTing perspectives.” More than a tagline, it’s become a guiding question for us when making programmatic, operational, or planning decisions: “Would this proposed work tilt perspectives?” The idea first came to me when I recalled reading an analysis of a passage from Shakespeare’s Richard II by the philosopher Slavoj Žižek in his book Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture: “What [Shakespeare] accomplishes is a radical change of terrain…a detail of a picture that ‘gaz’d rightly,’ i.e., straightforwardly, appears as a blurred spot, assumes clear, distinguished shapes once we look at it ‘awry,’ at an angle.”
The idea that to stand at the edge of a painting might reveal its contents more clearly, its shapes in more distinguished manner, is something we play with all the time in the theatre. We might choose to stage a given production in the round or in a thrust configuration, say, in order that no perspective is quite the same, and with the intent that our audiences depart the space with a collective perspective, a collective experience.
Žižek has another word for us, though, that perhaps helps to clarify the importance of looking awry as we shift our gaze to a post-pandemic theatre: “A goal, once reached, always retreats anew,” he reflects of Zeno’s third paradox. “The goal is the final destination, while the aim is what we intend to do, i.e., the way itself.”
Vision, relevance, mission, goal, aim.
There are words at which we much all commit to looking awry, in our own ways, as we move ever closer to what is to be done.
- Theatre of Circumstance is obsessed with possibilities.
Obsessed. If it’s relevant and it’s rooted in possibility, Theatre of Circumstance is all about it. Yes, I’m talking about possibility in the “doable” sense. But I’m also referring to the plural form that imbues “possibility” with so much excitement: possibilities. It’s hard to imagine this word without conjuring images of dreamers, idealists, and, yes, visionaries. I wonder, however, whether the Theatre of Circumstance—at least for now—requires us to eschew the notion that the possibilities are endless. The horizon has its own endpoints, after all, and for the time being, I think, what is to be done must be done with strategic excitement.
Our organizations’ strategic filters are populated with crucial criteria for considering whether an initiative should move forward. Possibility, in its singular form, is inherent to most of these. Is the proposed program financially viable (possible now)? Is it sustainable (possible in the long run)? Do we have the non-financial resources required for it to be successful? Will the program bring added relevance to our work? Will it prove creatively fulfilling? Does it move us at least one step closer to attaining our vision—and is one step enough?
Possibilities. When we’re back to in-person theatrical communing, I know that I’ll be reframing my thought process as an artistic director to consider possibilities that aren’t endless. Because endlessness is not a strategic framework for proceeding; there is an end to which our means create the stepping stones. As with relevance and eventualities, it is almost certain that the possibilities we pursue in the post-pandemic theatre will need to be shifted in terms of mindset, application, and practice. And it goes without saying that representation and access must be at the forefront of all we will do, no questions asked, for the duration of the theatre’s life as we know it.
A Theatre of Circumstance. Sounds crazy, no? Maybe. But I think Simon’s charge applies not only to relevance, but to the whole of circumstance itself. “So let’s celebrate relevance,” she says. “Not as an end, but as a means. Because relevance is just a start. It is a key. You’ve got to get people in the door. But what matters most is the glorious experience they’re moving towards, on the other side.”
Adam K. Roberts (he/him) is the artistic director of TILT Performance Group.
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