Intentional Civics

Mar 06, 2018

Up on his political soapbox, filmmaker and activist Michael Moore insists that now is the moment for non-politicians to take action by running for political office.  What does “running for office,” mean to theater artists? 

In the performing arts we have arrived at an unusual tipping point. Partially due to the repercussions of the #MeToo movement, but mostly because the current generation of long-time artistic directors are stepping down from their posts at regional theaters, presenting houses and large and small theaters everywhere, more artistic director and producing artistic director vacancies exist than any time in my memory.

Recently over coffee, a director who had graduated a number of years ago from the Columbia MFA directing program asked me for advice regarding her freelance career.  I found myself answering with both vehemence and passion. “Right now is perhaps not the right moment to pursue a freelance career,” I said.  “Perhaps now is the time for you to step up and take over one of the many theaters with vacancies.” Maybe, I thought, this is a way for theater artists to run for office. The task then becomes, how to make galvanizing, meaningful productions while simultaneously engaging with communities, boards, artists and politicians?  Perhaps these vacancies offer the opportunity for younger theater artists to step up to the plate in a public forum and put civic action before solely personal expression; to firmly grasp one’s accumulated tools and move into the public sphere in order to make a difference in the midst of our current national predicament.

I know from experience that leading a theater means plunging into meetings with happy and unhappy constituents, with the Rotary and Elks Club and even the Mayor’s office.  It means dealing with the politics of a company and the politics of a community.  I appreciate that this kind of care and attention to an arts organization and its community requires one to cultivate an attitude, in fact, a symphony of attitudes, in order to lead effectively.  And there is a cost to looking out for others while simultaneously tending to one’s growth as an artist.  Social responsibility requires expanded parameters of the body in action in the world.  The job requires you to think expansively and enlarge one’s scope of attention, all the while staying in touch with an inner compass and sense of truth. Because the obstacles are greater in the public sphere than in private, one’s body and soul must dilate to meet these obstacles.  As Thomas Paine wrote about George Washington:  “There is a natural firmness in some minds which cannot be unlocked by trifles, but which, when unlocked, discovers a cabinet of fortitude.”

In our current political climate I am probably not alone in finding myself in heated debate about art and politics and artists and political action. Recently, speaking on the subject to students at the New School, a young, lanky undergrad named Elliot Waples suggested that I employ the word civics rather than politics when considering the intersection between activism and artistic practice. He continued in an email exchange: “Often civics is a throw away word for a type of politics that is attempting to mask itself as unbiased. Civics, as a subject on it’s own volition, is scarce.”

Elliot’s analysis of the role of civics in public discourse is fascinating and worth serious consideration. He suggests that in order to awaken civic responsibility, the key is to think of civics as what happens to the space between people rather than what happens within specific individuals.  “Civic space,” he wrote, “is always in action regardless of distance or will or action. There is no moment where bodies can exist without negative space and therefore there is no moment where civics is not practiced.”

After our exchange and hungry to dig deeper, I searched for other definitions and descriptions of the word civic.  The most satisfactory was, “The duties of citizens to each other as members of a political body and to the government.”  But even this came nowhere near the acuity of Elliot’s conception of civics.  As I understand Elliot’s hypothesis, our attention to civic space and civic action can focus our political interactions. Because, as he suggests, the space outside of an individual is always active, so it follows then that in order to live and act responsibly we need attend carefully and consciously to the space between bodies. The way that space is attended to and activated, how bodies and groups react to one another, is what makes for civil discourse.

In graduate school, Elliot plans to study what he calls intentional civics.  I believe that he invented the term and he will have to forage different academic disciplines in order to assemble a curriculum.  According to him, intentional civics is where the individual body is aware of the “civic-ness” of space and is working actively to strengthen its bonds, regardless of people’s culture or profession.  Politics, says Elliot, is contingent upon active civic choices.

How can civics actively intersect our lives and our artistic practice? I admire and am grateful for the high school students from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida who, in response to the fatal shooting of 17 of their classmates, stepped forward to demand a change in gun legislation, naming their movement #NeverAgain.  I am impressed by how necessity has forced these young people to be articulate and filled with lucidity and courage.  I also love how high school students from around the country are joining in their charge and I am proud that the most articulate of the students seem to come from the drama clubs. Because the theater requires negotiation, articulation and attention to civic space, theater students may simply be the best spokespeople and activists for a new direction, a reevaluation of democracy.   They understand that dialogue and taking multiple perspectives in hand while developing and expressing a clear point of view is key to their success.  We watch them naming things and speaking truthfully.

One of the ancient Greeks’ most profound innovations is that the greatest philosophy is presented as dialogue rather than a monologue.  Plato proposed that the truth exists, not on one side or another, but in between.  When two people are talking or two groups are engaging, the truth is present but not owned by either side.  If we want to shepherd and protect democracy into the future, we must understand that democracy is about the discussion, the debate and the notion that everyone should be heard and that perhaps we have something to learn from the person who has not yet spoken. Inspired by Elliot Waples’s analysis and the students from Parkland, I want to think of intentional civics as the art of civic conversation.  Thanks to their insights and actions I am called upon to attend carefully to my relationship to others, to the space between individuals and the greater masses of bodies.