Quick Study: September 16, 2021

Jo Reed: Welcome to “Quick Study,” the monthly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts.  This is where we’ll share stats and stories to help us better understand the value of art in everyday life.  I’m co-piloting “Quick Study” with Sunil Iyengar.  He’s the Director of Research & Analysis here at the Arts Endowment.  Hello, Sunil.

Sunil Iyengar: Hi, Jo.

Jo Reed: Well, I know for this episode of “Quick Study” you wanted to discuss a new report by the Sundance Institute from an art researcher who’s also a theater professional, Jesse Cameron Alick, and it’s a different study from the ones that we’re used to talking about here.

Sunil Iyengar: Yes.  It’s a provocative report called “Emerging from the Cave: Imagining the Future of Theater and Live Performance.”  The cave, of course, is the shutdown that’s affected theaters nationwide during the pandemic.  The studies we discussed in the past, Jo, often rely heavily on statistics and academic jargon to some extent, but this one is based on in-depth interviews with 76 diverse artists, administrators, donors, and others in the theater space.  The interviews were done earlier this year, mostly by Zoom, and they started by asking a simple question.  Simple but complicated.  Basically, “How’s it going?”  In the process, these theater <laughs> makers were encouraged to talk about their needs, the challenges they continue to face, but also speculate about what the future of theater and live performance could look like.

Jo Reed: That sounds fascinating, and as you say, complicated, but also broad.  How did they distill these conversations?

Sunil Iyengar: Well, the study identified four themes that ran throughout all the interview data.  They’re the notion of collective leadership, of holistic artist support, of digital theater and hybrid futures, and something called field ideation.

Jo Reed: Okay.  Well, why don’t we take these one by one and begin at the beginning with collective leadership?

Sunil Iyengar: Right.  So first, under the heading of collective leadership, several participants advocated more collaborative and less hierarchical approaches to leading theater organizations, since as one interviewee put it, “no one person has the answer.”  Another interviewee, who was the writer, director, songwriter and performer Whitney White, gave this indictment.  She said, “The field is risk-averse to diverse sources of talent, even when the ideas are good.”  She added, “What happens is that we’re all listening to the same 10 people, and so the possibility for transcendence and surprise becomes impossible.”  Kimber Lee, the playwright, argued that, “We worship at the feet of iconoclasts.  We all hunger to give ourselves over to the brilliant person who’s going to save the American theater from itself.”

Jo Reed: Okay. <laughs> And another theme is “more holistic support.”  What does that mean?

Sunil Iyengar: That relates to more comprehensive plans to support artists as part of the theater ecosystem.  Osh Ghaniman, the actor, writer, director and producer of Broadway For All, observed, “Everyone wants the new Lin-Manuel Miranda, but nobody wants to do the work to cultivate and share access with all of the Lin-Manuel Mirandas in all of the pockets across America.  Artists needs people to invest in them when they need the most investing, which is their formative years,” end quote.

Jo Reed: And then, well certainly digital theater and hybrid futures.  That’s been on everybody’s mind given the ways theaters have adjusted and are still adjusting to COVID.

Sunil Iyengar: Or still need to adjust.  That’s right.  So for example, Lynn Nottage, the playwright, suggested that theaters, rather than thinking about how we can create theater everywhere that demands a stage, they should think, “How can you create theater that meets the needs of our individual space?”

Jo Reed: And finally, the category of field ideation.  Sunil, I don’t even know what that means.

Sunil Iyengar: <laughs> Well, I think as the report phrases it, it’s really kind of a grab bag of ideas that came from the field itself from these experts, these artists and administrators in theater, about how they would like to change the field, and so one of the things I really admired is a statement that was made by the artist, writer and performer Ty Defoe, where he envisions theater as kind of a place of permanence.  He specifically says, quote, “I think about the seven generations model that many different native nations or tribes have.  It’s a question of, ‘Are you thinking seven generations ahead?  Why this piece of work now?  Why this play now?  Why is it important?’”

\Jo Reed: It sounds like they’re really rethinking theater very, really radically, and I wonder, were there any conclusions or next steps or was this some necessary food for thought?

\Sunil Iyengar: Well, as I said at the start, Jo, this was very unlike some of our other studies that we’ve talked about because it was very much based in interviews, and so there’s a lot of great texture about what people felt about theater.  So I don’t have numbers, but I do have sort of broad conclusions from the study.  So the researcher, Jesse Alick, offers a final diagnosis.  He writes that, “Large institutions, in an attempt to reach national relevance, have failed to make deep investments in local communities and local artists.  Although it may be idealistic to believe that there was ever a golden age where regional theaters were laser-focused on their own communities, this moment has shown us that we have turned away from ourselves in our own backyards in search of bigger things, and in that quest, we are losing sight of our mission.”  That’s plenty to think about there, especially for arts funders.

Jo Reed: Well, yeah.  A lot to think about for anybody who loves theater.  I’m really interested to see the response to this not just in words but actions in the coming months and years.

Sunil Iyengar: Here’s to that.

Jo Reed: Sunil, thank you so much, and I’ll talk to you next month.

Sunil Iyengar: Sure thing.

Jo Reed: That was Sunil Iyengar.  He’s the Director of Research & Analysis here at the National Endowment for the Arts.  This has been “Quick Study.”  The music is “We Are One,” from Scott Holmes Music.  It’s licensed through Creative Commons.  Until next month, I’m Josephine Reed.  Thanks for listening.

In this month's episode we look at Emerging from the Cave, a report that captures the most pressing challenges and opportunities for today’s theater artists—in their own words.