The Why

Mar 16, 2012

The playwright and performer Taylor Mac is constantly developing multiple new projects. He is at work now on a twenty-four hour concert about the history of popular music. He spoke to my students at Columbia University recently and told us that he is looking for two hundred and fifty songs from twenty-four decades, music from the 1770s up to the present decade. I asked Taylor how he choses the songs. He said that he looks for songs that create community. 

Oh, a song that creates community! I asked Taylor what kind of songs creates community. He said that some music tends to make the listener internal and contemplative and other music connects people. He is choosing music that connects people.

I believe that Taylor’s work is as successful as it is with audiences because he is deeply connected to the why of his enterprise. He is on a mission. He is leading the way.

Recently, in the midst of a SITI Company strategic planning committee meeting, SITI Company member Leon Ingulsrud leaned over to me and quietly spoke the following words: “Anne, fifteen years ago, you said that you had about fifteen ‘theatrical essays’ in the form of plays to ‘wright’ with the Company. And that’s what we did; we followed your lead and constructed many productions based upon your fertile ideas. But what is your idea now, moving forward? What will we be doing for the next ten years?” I wanted to slap Leon because his question felt intrusive and aggressive. It upset my equilibrium. And I know that it upset my equilibrium because he was asking a key question that I needed to seriously confront and investigate.

Not long afterwards I was reading Simon Sinek’s book entitled Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone To Take Action. Sinek distinguishes between leaders who start with why and those who start with what. The great innovators and entrepreneurs, he maintains, always start with the why. The what and the how are therefore a result of the why. Individuals and communities who share the same why are attracted to the what, because of the why. People are drawn to others not because they love the what, but rather because they feel that they share the same why with others. I believe, for example, this is the reason that people are drawn to the Occupy Wall Street movement. People are drawn out of themselves for highly personal reasons. They are drawn out of themselves for themselves.

Of course I had to ask myself, what is my why now? I could feel it on the tip of my being but could not yet articulate it.

Then I received an email from Julia Wolfe, the composer and one of the three founders of Bang on a Can, one of the most exciting classical music organizations of our times. I knew and admired her music but had never met her. We met to talk in a small bistro in Chelsea and she proposed that we work together on her oratorio entitled Steel Hammer. As soon as she began to speak about the piece, goose bumps rose on my skin and I blurted out that even though I had not yet heard the piece, I knew exactly how we would work and what the audience would experience. The Bang on a Can All-Stars, her ensemble, and SITI Company will be together on the stage in a pluralistic mélange. We would create a new society together.

Suddenly, in speaking with Julia about the Steel Hammer project, I understood my own current why. I am jazzed about the potential power of pluralism and community in the art of the theater.

The theater is the art form whose raison d’etre is to address issues of social systems. How can we get along with one another? How can we get along better? Who are we together and how is that changing? How is it going? The experience of theater is one in which the society of the audience co-mingles with the society of the actors. The community of artists proposes, within the fabric of every production, nothing less than a model society.

I saw a show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music recently that was a stunning display of virtuosity and theatricality but it left me completely cold. I did not personally relate to the why of the production. I could feel no shared community onstage or in the audience and I sensed no community forged between stage and audience. All I could feel was the insinuation of one big controlling ego, the director.

For me now, the most compelling theater experiences create new communities through the crosscurrents of diverse disciplines.  In 2010 SITI Company collaborated with the Martha Graham Dance Company on American Document. The meeting of these two companies became part of the very subject matter of the piece and offered audiences access to a new social system in its very inception. The experience felt useful in the world. Presently we are working with ArtsEmerson in Boston on Café Variations, a work that includes eight SITI Company actors, SITI Company designers, the music of George and Ira Gershwin, text by Charles L. Mee, twenty-two young actor/singers from Emerson’s performing arts program and a live band. The process itself is creating a brand new community and an audience will be invited to become part of that community in the very moments of performance. Following Café Variations, SITI will embark upon a new collaboration with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company on a piece about Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. I am convinced that the seminal meeting between the actors and dancers will become a large part of the content of the piece.

I relate to Taylor Mac’s search for pluralist communion. This is why I reach out to connect SITI Company with other communities. This is why it felt so right to work with the Martha Graham Dance Company and now with Café Variations in Boston and next the Bill T. Jones Arnie Zane Company.

The success of our actions in the world is deeply connected to why we are doing them. And when we loose touch with the why we invariably lose our way.