Dunkirk NY -
Regan – We shall further think of it.
Goneril – We must do something, and i’ th’ heat. King Lear, I.1
As a kid growing up I was enamored of the TV series Dragnet (the 1967-70 remake, not the 1951-59 original, thank you very much). Quietly and without much fuss at all (and, to my recollection, never firing a weapon), Sgt. Joe Friday of the LAPD went about meticulously gathering the facts and, in the end, solving the crime. His catch phrase “Just the facts, ma’am” (which he never actually said in the series; it was “All we want are the facts, ma’am”) always rang out when someone on the show became emotional or tried to drag in some useless information not related to the questions Joe was asking. The facts always solved the case.
I have always based my decisions in life on trying to acquire the facts. Information has always been valuable to me. Having as much information and as many facts as possible has always made decision-making a lot easier. That is not to say that every decision I have made was easy. When the facts told me that, in all likelihood, I was not going to be a major American actor, there were clear emotional consequences. There still are. But the facts told me it was time to make a change, and so off I went to grad school.
Today’s society feels different to me, or perhaps I never fully understood how people can so willfully ignore facts. Scott Walters of Theatre Ideas just published a three-part series entitled “Occupy Lincoln Center,” outlining the facts concerning how grant money is distributed in the arts in this country. He based his series on an analysis of a report issued by the National Committee for Responsible Philanthropy (NCRP) written by Holly Sidford of Helicon Collaborative. The report is not theatre-specific, but looks at arts funding distribution as a whole. To give you a gist of the report, here is a salient quote from the Executive Summary:
Much of this work is being done at the grassroots and community levels by artists and relatively small cultural organizations. Yet, the majority of arts funding supports large organizations with budgets greater than $5 million. Such organizations, which comprise less than 2 percent of the universe of arts and cultural nonprofits, receive more than half of the sector’s total revenue. These institutions focus primarily on Western European art forms, and their programs serve audiences that are predominantly white and upper income. Only 10 percent of grant dollars made with a primary or secondary purpose of supporting the arts explicitly benefit underserved communities, including lower-income populations, communities of color and other disadvantaged groups. And less than 4 percent focus on advancing social justice goals. These facts suggest that most arts philanthropy is not engaged in addressing inequities that trouble our communities, and is not meeting the needs of our most marginalized populations.
In other words, there is an elite group of artistic institutions, catering to white, upper-income patrons, getting the bulk of the money. Read Scott’s analysis for more information. It is interesting to note that the cut-off for the definition of “large organization” is $5 million. What would the numbers show, I wonder, if the cut-off figure had been half that?
But because we currently exist in a society where facts are routinely ignored, none of this information will have much of an impact on anyone. In every area of our society, from education to the arts to politics, facts are routinely dismissed, ignored, or misused. It seems as if no one can even determine what the facts actually are anymore, since the way we deal with facts these days is to spin them.
Nor does it seem apparent that any of these facts will cause people to coalesce over the injustices they represent. In the manic world of the blogosphere and twittosphere, these facts will be hotly debated, tweeted and re-tweeted, and then give way to the next hot topic that the internet manages to bring to us (we are currently on to the role of the theatre critic). Despite the fact that “We are the 99%” had gotten a lot of media play, 6 out of 10 people are indifferent to the OWS movement, and little action of any sort beyond occupation is taking place. Facts, it appears, do not lead to action. Every fact you can find about income disparity and the growing realization that we are all getting an economic screwing from Corporate America seems incapable of moving the American people to action.
Scott and I, probably because we are primarily academics, have both tried to base our commentaries on the state of American theatre from the point of view of data. I have tried to formulate my critiques of the university system of training actors based on data from the NEA. I offered a list of theatre facts last year for people’s consideration. I did two different analyses on the data compiled by the Innovative Theatre Foundation. I even surveyed my own graduates back in 2007. Despite all these efforts, and all these facts, there seems to be very little action taking place.
But more than that. Both Scott and I – Scott more than myself – have had instances where our facts were either summarily ignored or vehemently denied. Perhaps even more insidious, in some instances the facts are acknowledged, but when it comes to one’s own individual circumstances, do not apply (“I am the exception. I will overcome the facts.”). And yes, there are exceptions to almost every non-scientific, physical fact, but assuming that the facts won’t apply to you is not supported by the facts; mostly that’s a matter of luck and the odds (both of which are facts).
There seems to be little doubt that one of the unintended consequences of trying to create a multicultural, diverse society has been the fracturing of that same society into ever smaller silos. Margo Davis could speak of a movement of regional theatres in her time, and get a hearing, because there was almost universal agreement on the worthiness of the idea. Today, you can’t get universal agreement on anything. Even facts will not produce universal agreement, because in today’s contentious atmosphere, the idea is not to understand facts, the idea is to refute or spin them. Our current congressional situation is a perfect reflection of how this plays out in the real world.
I truly despair of anything happening to change the climate of theatre in this country anytime soon. Both entropy and evolution will have more of a say over time than any collection of facts I can accumulate. The current theatrical climate will crack not because of any sage planning or collective action on the part of theatre practitioners, but because larger economic forces will force the changes. Young artists currently “in training” in higher education today are not pushing the status quo; they are fighting for entry. It seems to me that, like Regan, collectively we shall think – and blog, and tweet – further on this. Few of us will take Goneril’s advice. -twl
PS – Diane Ragsdale has also chimed in on this exact subject. Give it a read.