When I was an 18-year-old freshman at Harvard, I spent every waking minute (outside of class) acting in plays and directing them. But I never thought about theater as something I would actually do with my life. I was thinking about a career in politics. Something serious.
Now, 25 years later, I am back at Harvard as the artistic director of the American Repertory Theater. And nothing feels more serious to me than the transformative power of the arts.
As we have seen in recent events — from the elections to Hurricane Sandy to the tragic shootings in Connecticut — a sense of community, of connection to one another, is essential to our lives. And that’s why theater is so important to me: It can be a vital tool to connect people and to examine, together, the key issues of our time. Both in directing individual shows and in running the ART’s program, my mission is not only to produce “art” onstage but to build a shared community with the people on the stage, in the wings, and in the seats out front.
When people share live art experiences, they come together to be present with each other, to identify with points of view that are different from their own, to feel empathy, and to consider issues in a multi-layered and complex way. My goal is to make the ART a place for learning and talking about our shared civic culture — whether by presenting a play that starts a conversation about institutional racism, as I hope the musical “Johnny Baseball” did, or by curating an online collection of memoirs by Chinese and Chinese-American citizens of Boston to accompany our production of Jung Chang’s “Wild Swans,” or by creating a series of workshops and artist talks about the social history of “Porgy and Bess.”
Positioning the theater at the center of community discourse and civic engagement is nothing new; in fact, it is one of the oldest traditions we have. In fifth century BCE Athens, plays were staged in a citywide festival that involved the citizens not just as audience members, but also as participants and sponsors. Every citizen would spend the day at the theater experiencing the powerful tragedies that reflected the social and political issues of the time.
The idea of strengthening a community through theater is on the mind of many of my colleagues around the country and around the world. One of the newest initiatives by the National Endowment for the Arts, called Our Town, is a grant program dedicated to the concept of “creative placemaking.” The NEA describes the project as “a strategy for public and private partners to work together to shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, city, or region through arts and cultural activities.” One early product of the initiative is in Bethlehem, Pa., where they transformed a portion of the Bethlehem Steel mill complex into the “SteelStacks Arts Campus.” The first year of programming at the SteelStacks drew more than a million visitors.
Another exciting example comes from the Tony Award-winning director John Tiffany, who will be directing “The Glass Menagerie” at the ART in February. In 2009 John directed a project called “Hunter,” in which he transformed an entire community into its own theatrical universe. Set in the streets of Thurso, Scotland, “Hunter” was created and performed by 150 local high school students working collaboratively with professional artists. For the performance, the creators led the audience through the familiar streets of their own town, now made unfamiliar and mysterious by this incredible piece of theater that unfolded around them. Here, theater became the community, and the community became the theater.
The direct impact of projects like these is hard to measure. They are relatively new experiments. But the proliferation of like-minded efforts across the field makes me feel confident that the arts can hold a renewed centrality in contemporary life. A 2011 MassINC poll of Massachusetts gateway city residents showed that 70 percent of those surveyed feel that arts and culture events are “extremely or very important to their communities.”
I think so too. And I feel grateful to be back here, talking about something truly serious: how the arts can help us transform our communities. I know they can – and I relish every chance I get to talk with those who feel the same way.