I’m halfway through performing in a month-long run of the musical The Secret Garden at Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany, NY. The 3-week rehearsal period was one of the most intense creative experiences I’ve ever had, and that’s to say nothing of the stellar cast and crew involved in this production. But the show is not what I’d like to write about.
Last Friday (11/28/14), just blocks before reaching the theatre by car, my route was unexpectedly diverted. North Pearl St. (where CapRep resides) was blocked off at one end. I saw that hundreds of people had gathered. On that day, it could have been for only one reason. A grand jury had chosen not to indict Darren Wilson, the white officer in Ferguson, MO, who’d fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. The throng had gathered to protest this decision, and thousands (if not millions) of people all over the country were doing the same that weekend. I was slightly annoyed at this convenience of having to drive a few extra blocks to park. When I did reach my destination, the protest had begun, and a march had started up North Pearl, right past CapRep. On one side of the street: protesters of all ages and races carrying signs and softly chanting; on the other: the mostly-white, mostly-40s-and-up-year old audience filing into the theatre for opening weekend wearing beautiful coats and and suits and dresses. The incongruity of this juxtaposition was not lost on me.
I had, in that moment, feelings of guilt. My heart was with the protesters across the country, but my mind was focused on The Secret Garden and the job I was being paid to do. As an artist, I’m often confronted with conflicting feelings about imbuing my projects with politically- and socially-conscious messages. There are times when I feel it’s appropriate, and when I to find an appropriate medium to remark on the tragedy in Ferguson, I might be compelled to do so. In this instance, however, I was hired by the theatre to perform in a work of musical theatre that was written 30 years ago and remarks neither about race, police states, nor the criminal justice system. For the three hours I’m on stage, I’m merely providing entertainment, taking people away from goings-on in the United States and dropping them into a world where a little girl whose parents died of cholera finds a garden and miraculously cures an wheelchair-bound boy through mystical chants with the help of spirits from Colonial India. What am I doing to help better the social climate in this country with that? How can I ease racial tensions through classical Indian dance?
In earlier writings (which may soon be posted here) I’ve explored the idea that art is a non-essential part of our society. We do not need art to survive. It may the most important and integral non-essential activity I participate in. But never singing again is not the same as never eating again. With this philosophy in which I’ve come to believe over the last few years, I’m often riddled with guilt over not participating in more (read: any) actions to directly affect social change. My life will not end if I stop writing music, but more and more black teenagers will die if these protests do not result in changes in the way police departments conduct their business in the United States. It is a matter of life and death for minorities across the countries. So why would anyone waste their time in the theatre? in concert halls? in the movies? Disregarding works of art that directly comment on important social events and injustices, what role does Art play in affecting change? I’d like to believe in the idea that simply providing a space for anyone to enjoy art is something of a step. Perhaps that’s why I believe pure music is the most important tool we have in bringing people together. Money often gets in the way in theatre. Tickets to The Secret Garden start at $25 and go up to $65. Even I don’t often have an extra $25 to spend for a night out. Disenfranchised and impoverished minorities certainly would not waste $25 on a frivolous night at a musical if it meant not eating. Music is significantly less expensive and can be enjoyed endlessly if purchased. Music-listeners can create their own spaces to enjoy art in their homes, on the street, in a club, wherever, and those spaces are not framed by what is all-too-often the upper-middle-class-white experience found so frequently in theatre and movies. That’s not to say that upper-middle-class whites don’t and can’t have a role to play in bridging the gap with minorities, but minorities might be mistrustful of space set up by said non-minorities. Admittedly, our audiences have been mostly white. I expected that much. With all that said, I still want to believe that some art is better than no art. And if through school outreach and discounted ticketing we can entice more non-Whites to come to the theatre, I think the experience would create a feeling of inclusion and solidarity among all the audience members, and that would positively affect our lives. It won’t put body-cameras on police officers, but it might brighten someone’s day. That alone helps to assuage any Artist Guilt I’m feeling.
After posting this commentary on Facebook, I received many excellent comments that I feel are worthy of sharing here. My Facebook friends are labeled “A” and “B” below:
A: I love that you brought this up. I often have these feelings. You as a composer could do a lot by creating work that speaks to us all as human beings, acknowledging our differences and celebrating them. Yes, eating is necessary for survival, and (biologically) the arts are not. That being said, though, isn’t that what separates us from the rest of the planet? As human beings, there are many things that ‘feed’ us. Music, art, drama, dance, film. I’m am repeatedly thankful that I am getting to do what I love as often as I do. Let’s continue the conversation. I’ve said ‘human beings’ a lot, but we are all on this planet together, and I hope that as life continues we can all understand each other a little better.
ME: I very much agree, [A]. Most of my work deals with inner struggles, psychological struggles, without ever dealing directly with larger social issues. But there’s something to be said for speaking to personal struggles which have experienced or will experience. Knowing that these experiences are not limited to any sector of the population (nor any one period of human history) will hopefully bring people together. And I’m very grateful to be human, to have been afforded the opportunity to create art and share it with people like you.
B: I appreciate your writing and sharing this. I crave these kinds of questions, Justin, because they are crucial in getting us artists to talk about what we do, why we do it, and if it is really doing anything at all. How can we cope with the sometimes seemingly pointless work we do while our attention feels a pull towards bigger issues than, as you mentioned, telling the story of a young girl finding a garden? To this I say that as artists we have a collective responsibility to use our art in the most effective way possible. Because artists experience the world on a different emotional, spiritual, visual etc, level, we have the great and terrible burden of pointing out naturalized injustices, systems, beliefs in a way that affects ourselves and others and incites the desire for change. Your question, “Why would anyone waste their time in a theatre” (I’m focusing on theatre mainly here because it is the art form I am most familiar with), is a great one. You’re right that those who are “disenfranchised and impoverished” would not waste $25 to go see a story that might not seem to have absolutely anything to do with them, which is why I strongly feel that theatre needs to begin to head in a different kind of direction than where it has been living. Beautiful, tragic, life changing things happen onstage in theatres but those theatres are telling those stories to a very small portion of society. I’m very interested in changing the normalcies of experiencing theatre to avoid just that, to make it more accessible and attainable. We as members (more importantly, friends) of this artist community have the responsibility to not only continue to create the art we love so that it can be experienced but also to realize that the pre-existing conventions for how people experience art might not be working for everyone, especially for the people we might specifically want to be reaching. Yes, having a space for art to simply be enjoyed is a step, absolutely. I’ll add to that thought and ask what might the other components of that space be? Are these components helping me in sharing the message I want to share? Can they be changed? Can they be emphasized? I feel confident in saying that all artists experience this battle of guilt in full every so often. If that is the case, than I would love nothing more than to continue this conversation with you and our friends and fellow artists about what we want art to be individually and collectively and figure out how to get it there.
ME: It’s a bit of a paradox isn’t it? Outreach is important: “How do you get more people of color, minorities, etc. into the theatre?” But it’s often whites who do this outreach. Then the task becomes how to get people from disenfranchised communities who have artistic careers to go back into those communities for outreach. All the while this process has to be organic, not “We’re doing this show because we want black people to come our theatre to keep them off the streets.” Unfortunately, projects like this have failed commercially. There’s a real task at hand, but it needs to be approached carefully so as not to seem forced, as “realness,” I think, is the key element to integrating (and yes, I mean this in the Little Rock, AK sense) the arts, theatre especially. Everyone—including, and especially, Art as an idea—would benefit from this.
B: Yes, how to make those who don’t often go to the theatre (or any art form really) want to walk in the door and also flipping that idea by saying how could the space and all its components be shared outward to those people and communities that might have little interaction with theatre and other art forms. The work that artists do that deals with personal inner struggles and psychological struggles is absolutely crucial, for how can what we create be meaningful if we aren’t constantly figuring out the inner workings of ourselves? You’re so right that many of those inner struggles are not limited to just one section of the population; so many human experiences are universal. Your music reaches people and reaches out to people. It connects them by helping them see that you have also experienced something similar. I so agree that ‘real’ connection is key.