I wrote this essay back in 2008. The U.S.A. had just elected Barak Obama as president. Regardless of how you feel about his
policies from the “Right” or the “Left,” we can’t ignore that he has acted honorably in the office and has been a good husband and father.
Now the great idea of this country is being challenged in ways that we could not have imagined in 2008. Since then we’ve come to
know “birther-ism” and the Tea Party and “Trump-ism.” While not the same test of freedom that the brave men at Gettysburg proved and Mr. Lincoln spoke
about so movingly, we have people who seem to want the equivalent of outright insurrection if not actual revolution. Or so it appears some times.
I know several folks who are very “conservative” and very “liberal.” (Who knows what those terms really mean
anymore?) Their rhetoric can be charged with feelings, but I’d be very surprised if they took up arms against each other.
So we get back to the idea. One of the things that fascinates me is that organizations – countries and arts organizations alike
– basically emerge into the world as the product of an idea. Sometimes the idea can be very simple.
A good idea is worth a lot.
Here I am from 2008.
Now we know.
A nation could elect a black man – a nation where only a mere 40-odd years ago that black man would have had difficulty in voting in
parts of this country. And mostly it appeared that folks primarily voted for him because he seemed like he had a good brain and a temperament that could deal with the sever
problems we have in this old world.
And so the United States seems like it will work again. All because of a really good idea.
Some people had some pretty good ideas. They thought people could rule themselves. They thought a permanent ruling class
wouldn’t be so useful. They considered that people could cope with free speech and a free press and freedom from some governmentally-approved religious belief.
And they believed in the power of mercy. Despite the miscomprehension of the current occupant of the White House, the Founders
didn’t give the Executive the power to just throw anyone in jail on their say-so alone. But they did explicitly give the Executive the explicit right to pardon.
A good idea shook up the world.
One of the things that Russian director Yevgeny Vakhtangov believed was that a theatre wasn’t about the building. A theatre –
at its core – was about an idea. The theatre included people who shared that idea.
I helped found a theatre in the world of academia in 2003. I had no real concept of who would show up or what we would do if people
showed up. I did have an idea, though.
Over the years I’ve worked with a wide variety of companies – good, bad, indifferent. The shows we made were of varying
quality as well. Some companies were about making a great artistic product. Other companies were about making money. And despite printed mission statements and the
like, some companies put all of their energy into great spectacle.
So when I helped start this group just five years ago, I had an idea. I had an idea that the theatre should be about people. The
theatre should be human.
That’s the idea I had.
On the very first day of the very first rehearsal, I had a small group of young actors stand in a circle. I asked them to look
around. I told them that I believed a theatre should be about people. And then we started.
That idea has led to some extraordinary consequences in terms of group loyalty and cohesion. Years ago I had an e-discussion with
colleagues around the country about the difficulties of building a true ensemble (whatever that might mean). Some members of that discussion said that an ensemble can only be built with years of labor. By contrast, I countered that a college campus can provide another means of building ensemble.
And so it has come to pass. The members of our theatre are room-mates and friends and family. And it shows on the stage.
That idea has led to consequences in how we choose repertoire. That idea has led to how we welcome our audiences.
Through the years and the shows, I’ve come to realize just now how important that relatively simple idea has been to my life and to the
lives of the people we’ve had the great fortune to work with.
I challenge you to think about the idea at the base of your theatre. What are you doing? Why? What keeps people coming
back? Has the idea changed?
We have a new president all because of an idea. A good idea.