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Can the Arts meet Activism without Partisanism? Thoughts on the 2017 Stagesource Conference.

Note:  This is not the sort of article that I have been posting on the studio blog as it falls more fully under the umbrella of my performing and administrator life.  However, I find that as I ask you to approach your vocal studies with a holistic view of your instrument, I must acknowledge the interconnectedness of myself as performer and instructor.  Besides, many of you may be navigating these issues in other industries and may appreciate the insights.
I spent the bulk of this cloudy Saturday with 200 or so intrepid members, and supporters of Stagesource at their bi-annual conference — Arts Activism:  Where Do You Fit In?  
Over the course of the day, we heard from people on all sorts of theatrical paths about how they approach activism in their work and why it matters that we engage at all.  I was happy to see that the elephant (or donkey) in the room was addressed with grace.  How do we organize and advocate for the Arts, basic human rights, and access for all without it becoming partisan?
Clearly, there are politics involved. The politics of different agenda meeting and interacting. The politics of colliding belief systems.  Wherever there are wants, needs, negotiation, and allocation there are politics at work. Still, aren’t there some things that are our right as members of evolved society?  Is it too much to ask that we be humane, while human, to each other?
Clearly, I stand for a more inclusive humanity.  I was delighted to find that this conference was full of “arts avengers” (to borrow a term from the day).  A conference of dedicated arts professionals who believe in humanity and the ideals embodied in our art forms,  ready to roll up sleeves to make it happen.
Here are nine observations and realizations from my day.

  1. It was pointed out fairly early on by keynote speaker, Tory Bullock, that we have a communication problem.  That there is a fundamental lack of conversation and connectedness to address before we can even get to whether we have a problem of understanding.  It struck me at this early point that we were dealing in empathy and how we built it.  I’ve always believed that the arts are especially well suited for the creation of empathy in a group but perhaps it can begin in a simpler place.  Perhaps it is a matter of “seeing” each other and choosing to spend some of yourself in the pursuit of human connection.
  2. I was reminded today that the arts were not always considered the purvue of the political left.  Richard Nixon funded the NEA to a higher degree than any President to that point.  He was an avid supporter and believer in the Arts and what they signified to society as a whole.  He was, in case you forgot, a Republican and a partisan one at that.  But the Arts weren’t partisan then.
  3. Matt Wilson of MassCreative introduced me to the concept that only in times of conflict does clarity about issues materialize.  Also, that only in times of conflict is the mobilization of a movement possible. He quoted from Richard Rothstein’s “What is an Organizer?”  which is linked HERE.  Wilson’s thoughts about the role of a citizen artist were so impactful for me as were his thoughts about telling our stories, asking for what we need, and building our power (political).  I was struck how those three steps mirror what I ask each voice student to do in a more personal way.
  4. There are some amazing people in the trenches producing provocative works and staging work in places that are considered ‘less than’ because that is where the work is needed, and that is the work that is required.  I found it comforting that while I was unsure what actions to take to advocate for the arts, there were people working on it.
  5. The collective knowledge of the artist professionals in Blackman Hall today was mind-boggling.  Anyone, who thinks the arts are frivolous fails to understand the vast amount of knowledge, and expertise of art forms, yes, but also of science, sociology, and psychology in the creation of artistic work.
  6. There were some hard conversations being had but I was struck by how people were actively trying to engage respectfully.  There were some hiccups in this regard (one of them mine) but the willingness to call out knee jerk reactions in oneself and to be honest was in high supply, and truly unexpected.
  7. I should spend more time with theater people, for they are amazing!
  8. Work-Life balance in the Arts (or otherwise) begins and ends with my expectations of what is appropriate and my choices about what I want my life to be.  Hard to blame the boss when you are self-employed.
  9. Choosing not to address the injustices before you is also a choice.  The primary reason I chose to post this today is that I choose to fight in the open.

So I left the conference today with a personal mandate to be part of a solution for our society.  And I answered my initial inquiry resoundingly.  These issues are not, cannot be partisan because latent humanity is not partisan.  The logistics of how we want to address these human rights may vary in a partisan way but latent humanity itself should not be up for debate.  To be absolutely clear, I don’t personally care if one party is at fault and/or who started it.  We are in it, up to our necks, and there are good people fighting each other on matters that should not be in question.  Such as our ability to feel empathy, the right to beauty, and love, and freedom.  The right to safety, and dignity, and myriad other fundamental rights that are not given to us by governments, they are ours by the grace of higher laws.  These rights are the birthright of humanity and I’ll be out there fighting for them.
Especially after today, I know I won’t be alone.

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