Washington, D.C. — I’ve spent most of April in Austin working on a preview production of new play called 381 Bleecker by Gia Marotta. It’s a searing, beautiful story about two sisters who have to reckon with the wounds that drove them apart 25 years ago when their brother died of AIDS. In the play, Meg is an avant-garde choreographer who lives in NYC’s West Village and becomes the primary caretaker for her brother. Meg’s experience reflects the impact of her personal loss and that felt by her larger community: downtown artists were hit disproportionately hard by the epidemic that President Reagan refused to address publicly for the first six and a half years of his presidency (see me after class for my unfiltered thoughts on Reagan, especially within the context of the AIDS crisis). Ellen, her sister, is a labor lawyer: she stands up to the small parts manufacturers, steel companies, and hotel chains that are more interested in a positive bottom line than the prosperity—even the humanity—of the workers they employ. Spending almost a year so far with these two characters, especially as I’ve worked with Gia and a crack team of actors and designers to bring this story to life, I’ve been more and more struck by the ways advocacy and caretaking manifest and intersect for these two women as they struggle on behalf of the people they care about.
Caretaking, advocacy, and artists: we can look our current context and see real need, too. We’re not up against the terror of a disease we don’t understand eviscerating our community, thank goodness. But artists across the country, and especially in Texas, are facing challenges that require taking care of one another and taking political action. In order to survive, we must become advocates who can identify systemic problems and introduce the possibility of sustainable change.
We have a number of individual unions—for actors on stage and screen, designers, crew—that look out for their members, but there is a large segment of artists who don’t belong to any of those organizations. The unions are national, expensive to join, and it can be difficult to meet the continued requirements for membership as a freelance artist outside a major hub. Plus, they already have a good deal on their plates, and are therefore less able to grapple with the many localized problems artists are facing. They also aren’t designed for direct political action.
What would happen if artists could organize into a cohesive whole that could speak articulately, passionately, and compellingly about the value that our work contributes to our communities? How do we build the kind of political clout we need in order to bring about substantive change? How can artists transfer the same skills we call upon when we’re making our work to change this conversation?
When I moved from Nebraska to Chicago, I was gleeful to be moving from a Red state to a Blue state. “Finally,” I thought. “I’m going to live in a state where my vote matters.” That felt true at the time, but I think what I really meant was that I was moving to a state—to a city—where, historically, the politics expressed on election day were more in line with my own views of the world (flawed as those votes might reveal themselves to be; I see you now, Rahm). It’s not that my vote mattered any more or any less, it’s just that I would get to feel like I “won” while I watched the returns on election night. I had found a community—political and artistic—who shared my views in large enough numbers to carry the day and put the people we believed would help into positions of power.
Moving to Texas, specifically to Austin, in 2012, friends in the North assured me that at least I was moving to the Big Blue Dot in the Deep Red State. Now that I’ve been a Texan for almost four years, I see that there are a lot of problems with that statement. The data shows that most urban centers (including Austin, Dallas, and Houston) are blue dots. Progressive voting seems to be correlated to if not caused by living in more densely populated areas. I’m no sociologist, but I suspect that as misanthropic as living in close proximity to other humans can make a person (especially if that person ever has to drive on the interstate), it also produces more empathy, understanding, and a baseline desire to care for our fellow travelers to the grave, desires that are often—if not exclusively—espoused by our more liberal politicians.
I have found my favorite trappings of a typical liberal life here in Texas: excellent NPR affiliates, Trader Joe’s, Wi-Fi-enabled fair-trade coffee shops. I also continue to connect with brilliant artists who are making exciting and important work in Dallas, Houston, and Austin, and I am confident that I have only just scratched the surface. There are progressive, thoughtful citizens aplenty, but what am I left with when it comes to the Electoral College and the people sworn to represent me at the local, state, and national levels? Based on the number of phone calls and emails I’ve sent to Senators Cruz and Cornyn this year (by the way—y’all still need to #DoYourJob), my state representatives aren’t exactly representing my community and me. Does this mean that my vote doesn’t count? Is Texas as a whole—thanks in part to some serious gerrymandering by the Texas Lege—such a foregone conclusion that it doesn’t really matter who I vote for as long as I continue to lean staunchly to the left, toward equal rights for all our citizens and equal pay for women and sensible gun control and freedom of choice? And is this belief in Texas’s intractable blood red temperament what kept over 70 percent of eligible voters away from the polls in the midterm elections two years ago?
Politifact Texas totally called us out in 2014 for the worst voter turnout in the nation for that oh-so-vital mid-term race. Dallas did a little better than the state average: voter turnout for the mid-terms in 2014 was 34.02% in Dallas County. Given these numbers, I have a hard time believing that our individual votes don’t count. What if we could come together to create a voting block, fueled by commitment to community and organized by the artists who have chosen, for myriad reasons, to make Texas home? Are there enough of us that we could affect actual, systemic change?
According to Peter Simek’s thought-provoking 2013 post for D Magazine’s “Front Row,” the NEA data on where artists live shows Texas is no slouch in that department. Dallas in particular is well within the top 15—usually the top 10—in the nation of cities artists call home. There’s some ambiguity about how the NEA defined “professional” for purposes of these surveys, so I suspect there are even more of us here that this data reflects since it’s a reality that many artists have survival jobs that pay the bills and fuel their creative pursuits. If those folks were excluded, and if we add in the artists who have flocked to our state since the last NEA census, we may have a small army of artists on our hands.
It’s easy for us to feel isolated, even oppressed, especially when income inequality is increasing, spaces are disappearing (this is a full-on crisis in Austin, but Dallas certainly isn’t immune), housing prices are going up, and resources feel increasingly difficult to come by. Looking at the numbers, I believe we could create change, if only we would recognize our own potential.
We have more power than we think we do. We have more agency than we think we do.
How many artists, especially in Texas, choose to abstain from the political arena? How many believe that their votes don’t matter against the rural and rich conservative Texans who support policies about guns, women, education, and the arts antithetical to their beliefs? Artists do themselves, their supporters, and our country a disservice each time they perpetuate the stereotype of the a-political artist and use that trope as an excuse to stay safely on the sidelines. We are capable of remarkable feats of organization and coordination—as evidenced by every tech process that has ever happened. What kind of change could we affect if we recognized how these skills might transfer to community organizing or the even more overtly political sphere? We have trained our voices for a reason. We have studied objectives, obstacles, and actions. Why are we so willing to roll over, especially when our scene partners get indicted on felony charges, or insist upon a bill that will allow guns on the UT Austin campus starting on the anniversary of one of the darkest days in that great intuition’s history?
I believe that the political is personal and the personal is political. The art I want to make and see not only recognizes the transitive properties of these concerns—it seeks to illuminate them. I want to believe that a unified artist-driven voting block could affect authentic, positive change for our country. I am hungry to redefine our measures of success, to actually assess the impact we have on the communities we co-create with our neighbors, and put people in power who are reasonable, thoughtful, and not obvious, dangerous narcissists. I know that is a tall order, but I believe we can do it.
As a warm-up, what if we practice community organizing and the cultivation of an insistence on accountability within our own industry?
What if we committed to making exclusively purpose-driven art? I’m not saying that everything has to be overtly political or “issue-based—in fact, some of the most galvanizing art I’ve witnessed has been abstracted from the issue at its core. What if we created opportunities for authentic conversation with our audiences, asking them to more directly engage with the why of the production above and beyond the what? These shifts would, of course, force each of us to be transparent about our choices with ourselves, our companies, and our constituents. What would be revealed about the way programming happens if we held ourselves and one another accountable for what we’re producing? What would happen if we each considered our artistic practice a political act?
I was at a conference not long ago where I heard an artistic director I admire express disdain for the show coming up next on his season. He said he didn’t actually think it was good or interesting or a play he was proud to produce, but he was looking forward to it because the numbers at his colleague’s theater had been good, and hey—Butts in Seats, am I right?
I wish he were the only one. I’m not naïve enough to think that he is. Isn’t it possible that this behavior, presumably a response to dwindling resources and a desire to keep subscribers on board, is actually the mechanism that’s driving them away? When the artists making a piece don’t believe in what they’re making that energy reads loud and clear from the stage. Even if it’s not immediately nameable, that subliminal disdain transmits. And who would want to go back to a place that’s radiating disdain? Who wants to belong to a community like that?
Sarah Ruhl recently published a piece on HowlRound that asks, “Is Theatre Useful?” It’s a fair, important, and humbling question. I want the answer to be yes. I want to pick up the gauntlet Ruhl throws down and operate from the assumption that my work is helpful, useful, purpose-full. I want to believe, as Todd London recently posited, that the arts are standing between our current position and the utter collapse of a civil society and that this collapse is far from inevitable.
I’ve said before that Texas is poised to be the incubator of the next revolution in the American theater. And enough of you have agreed with me that I feel emboldened to say it again. If we make smart public/private partnerships, if we swing the barn doors wide and invite everyone to our party rather than closing ranks as the resources we’ve become accustomed to disappear and require us to change, if we harness the innovative thinking that is bringing tech companies to Texas in droves, we could beta test new financial models, new methods of authentic audience engagement, solutions for sustainability, and study the intrinsic impact the arts have on our communities and our well-being. We could change the entire game, and no one would see us coming.
What if we are just as capable of practicing a political revolution? Texas is certainly not the only place in the country with lackluster voter turnout—not by a long shot. What if we could create some exportable best political practices that would empower artists across the country to become more civically activated? Isn’t that another revolution worth beta testing?
I recognize that I am making a great many assumptions here. I am assuming that anyone reading this column agrees, more or less, with my personal political views. I am assuming that there are more Blue voters than Red voters who are staying home on Election Day. I am assuming that there are fundamental political actions that all or most artists could get behind. Even when we identify the same civic problems, I know we aren’t often on the same page about how to solve them: my Facebook feed is a constant reminder of how frighteningly entrenched the divide between Hillary and Bernie has become.
But then I remember that perhaps the greatest purpose of theater is to bridge these divides and create empathy. Great theater compels us to see the world in a new way and actually consider points of view we hadn’t thought to include in our understanding of the world. If I am being Pollyanna-ish, so be it, but I’d rather fight for the world as I want it to be than bemoan the world as it has become. I’d rather be a caretaker and an advocate for my community than stand by and watch it crumble.
So—where shall we start?
» Jess Hutchinson is a director, dramaturg, and producer dedicated to new plays and getting to know Dallas/Fort Worth for the first time. She recently earned her MFA from UT-Austin, is currently the NNPN Producer-in-Residence at Kitchen Dog Theater, and a founding member of Austin-based groundswell. She'll be writing about her exploration of the DFW theater and arts ecology in this monthly column on TheaterJones. Learn more about her and her work at www.jesshutchinson.com.