The Tentpoles of Our Future

Aug 14, 2020

I travelled from New York to London on March 11, 2020 carrying a small suitcase and expecting to stay for one week with my wife Rena.  Now it is mid-August and I am still in the UK with no idea about when it will be safe to return home. This is not what I planned and not what I had in mind. But this is the situation now. These are the circumstances.  Since then, how many lives have been lost?  How many jobs?  How many plans and projects have been put on endless delay?  How many evictions, hurricanes, fires and how much civil unrest? Where will it end? When shall we re-emerge again, blinking in the daylight?  We are experiencing a time of seismic rupture and nothing short of a paradigm shift. One thing is guaranteed: things will be different “afterwards.” And things must be different. Meanwhile, the tide has gone out to reveal the dark underbelly of the capitalist enterprise spread out upon the proverbial ocean floor. What we can now perceive so clearly is the detritus, the environmental waste and the racial and economic inequality that had been submerged in the ocean of our busy-ness, willful neglect and heedless consumption.

During these past months in London, I have been at work on my book The Art of Resonance, to be published by Methuen/Bloomsbury in the early part of 2021. The manuscript is due to the editor in September and so I am scrambling a bit. While I am grateful for the project, for the creative engagement, writing now is tricky because the very ground we are treading upon is shifting so radically and so swiftly. Writing about art and resonance is tough while lockdown is the baseline existence, while the streets fill with civil unrest and dissent, while an uncertain presidential race stumbles, while hospitals and morgues are overtaxed, while many businesses are on the verge of bankruptcy and most performance venues are shut down for an undetermined amount of time. 

At moments, the subject of the book, resonance, feels too rarified, too distanced from the realities of the current life struggles that are underway. And yet, living in this gap, this space that the French poetically call “un creux,” can be fruitful because we are now able to examine the world with fresh eyes. Our job as artists is to become resonant to the world rather than alienated from it; to connect with others and to create the conditions for resonance among us. I am reminded that art and theater were originally created to get us through anxious moments while finding successful shapes to embody our present ambiguities. Moments of disruption are important for artists because in moments of uncertainty and even panic, artists are the ones who can return us to clarity. And so, I keep going. I keep writing, all the while trying to stay as awake and as informed as I possibly can.

Perhaps now is the time to plant seeds. Not to reap. Not to sow. But to plant seeds. One thing that feels certain is that it would be a mistake to return to where we were beforehand. Even if we could. The questions that face us now are: can we change from a culture based in materialism, inequity and greed into a world that recognizes the extent of our quantum entanglements and mutual responsibilities?  Can we use this time to get in touch with what is essential? First, we have to stop and accept that we cannot know the future and that have always lived in uncertainty. We have simply been too busy to notice it.

In order to contemplate an ultimately unknowable future, it is perhaps useful to consider the present in light of the past. Currently we are looking at what might be a wide-ranging collapse of faith in the very system in which we live, and by which are governed.  Perhaps it would be instructive to examine the demise of the Soviet Union in the late 1980’s. The collapse of Russia and its Republics was preceded by a loss of faith in the basic tenets, the principals that supported the system by the very people who ran it. Aleksandr Yakovlev, popularly known as the “godfather of glasnost,” who encouraged Mikhail Gorbachev to swing the doors wide open to the rest of the world, chose one word to capture the general mood of frustration in the country: “Enough!” “We cannot live like this any longer,” he said. “Everything must be done in a new way. We must reconsider our concepts, our approaches, our views of the past and our future.”

Similarly, Franklin Roosevelt’s government and the New Deal agenda that financed vast public works systems throughout the United States after the collapse of the economy that led to the 1930’s depression was also made possible by a change in attitude.  The citizens of the United States simply had had enough of the principles of governance by the previous President Herbert Hoover who insisted on public confidence in his claim that “anyone not only can be rich, but ought to be rich.” These tenets simply collapsed.

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about tents and tentpoles.  I like to imagine that our job in theater and opera is to erect an old-fashioned tent in which events can occur. Tents are generally held up by poles at each corner and perhaps at the center. The very first step in the construction of a tent is to plant the tentpoles into the ground for structural support. In working on a production, each tentpole forms one of the cornerstones, and all together they serve as the primary support system for the entire venture. Examples of each tentpole for a rehearsal process may be a commitment to being present, preparation, training, respect for others, readiness for action and so forth. There are many different possibilities for what these tentpoles can be. The tentpoles, once sunk sufficiently into the ground, serve as the support system for the architecture of the particular creative enterprise and ultimately deeply influence the experience of the audience by making space for the imagination.

In Japanese Samurai culture, the Bushido code played an important role in the expansion of Asian art, Japanese values, tea ceremonies and sword-making. Bushido later became the basis for teaching of ethics in Japan. The code, which drew inspiration from Confucianism, contained eight key principals or, in our case tentpoles, that warriors were expected to uphold: Justice, Courage, Compassion, Respect, Integrity, Honor, Loyalty and Self-control. With these tentpoles in place, one could live an ethical life, a life of integrity.

There are many other arenas that use the tentpole metaphor. Fiction writers, in analyzing the structure of a story, use the term tentpole to describe key moments where the characters face defining choices, or where there is a plot twist, or a character is going after something that they suddenly cannot attain. In the film industry, a tentpole is the film that is expected to make a lot of money and can support the financial interests of a studio. Psychologists suggest that losing your parents is like losing the tentpoles out of your tent. In ancient Arabic literature, the tent and its components – the peg, the canopy – serve as metaphors for a ruler, government and supporters. In ergonomics, the human skeleton is compared to an articulated tentpole.

Currently I do not know anyone who would relish walking into a traditional theater space where, by necessity, the audience is seated separately with most of the seats empty in order to keep people safe. Before Covid, I often described the experience of theater using the phrase “breathing common air.” But now, being too close and breathing together is dangerous and off-putting. Borrowing from author Priya Parker’s recent book title, I am shifting my description of “breathing common air” to, “the art of gathering.”  But in order to pursue the many ways to gather effectively, we cannot continue making plays in the way we have until now. One of the upcoming reinventions in our own field may very well include the architecture of our theaters. Some theaters may by necessity shift from buildings for formal presentations to places of meeting. Our current theaters, mostly built by bricks, mortar and compression, might change to meeting spaces constructed by tensile structures or something that the sculptor Kenneth Snelson called “floating compression.”  Tension and compression are two major forces in architecture.  Most structures are constructed with compression – brick on brick, board on board, cement, all pushing and squeezing downward onto the ground and held up by the earth. Tension, on the other hand, is the opposite of compression; it pulls and stretches the construction materials. Tensile architecture, which includes all sorts of tents, is a structural system that predominantly uses tension rather than compression. Because of the tension, the material that stretches from the structure is usually membrane or fabric, which brings a feeling of lightness and flow to the edifice.

Throughout his career the architect and philosopher Buckminster Fuller experimented with incorporating tensile components into his work, including his celebrated geodesic domes. He spent his life searching for the structural secrets that allowed him to do more with less. “I saw that the earth doesn’t touch the moon, that the electron is as remote from the nucleus as is the earth from the moon, in their respective diameters,” he said, “Can I discover how humanity can use these principals of holding things together because this is what Kepler discovered, that these planets and the sun were holding together without touching, with something invisible. With tension.”  Fuller coined the word term “tensegrity” or “tensional integrity” which is a structural principle based upon a system of isolated components under compression inside a network of continuous tension and arranged in such a way that the compressed parts do not touch each other. It seems to me that tensile architecture suggests a physical space that can adapt better to our current times and circumstances than one created with pure compression and reflects more precisely the direction in which we are headed.

I have a hunch that the ideology of “tensegrity” can be useful as we look to create new tentpoles for our future theaters and buildings and indeed our future systems of governance. We do not create resonance by forcing our will upon the world, by compression, rather, we create the circumstances, the tents, in which resonance might occur through a symphonic arrangement of the elements available to us. In these sacred moments of pause in which the constant acceleration of a world driven by profit, production and consumption has been temporarily suspended, the opportunity exists to plant the seeds and create the tentpoles for our future world. Perhaps now a different kind of virus will come to us and spread and infect us: the virus of reimagining new social and cultural systems and global solidarity.