Civic Theater

This post was originally published by on May 29, 2011.

By Michael Rohd, CPCP Founding Artist

What do we talk about
when we examine what it means to make new theater today?

Craft. Career. Community.

These are the substance of many conversations we have
when we wrestle with what we make, how we make,
and how we make a life while making.

I propose that these conversations
often miss the most important conversation—
the one about how lives are lived outside the realm of our field,
our work,
and our audiences.

How does the work we do impact,
intersect with
and contribute to a healthy, functional democracy?

It seems to me that many of our conversations have become
either a quest to keep our institutions alive, or a salve
to the fear of economic and long-term instability for individual artists.

Those are valid, pressing concerns.
They have to be reckoned with, because livelihoods
and legacy are at stake.

But I don’t believe those conversations are going to ever be the
engine that drives the future of theater.


We need to demonstrate theater’s capacity as a set of potent practices that civic and legislative leaders (and organizations) can recognize as usable, applicable tools.  


Micheal Rohd. Photo by the Sojourn Theatre.

If I,
as an artist and a citizen,
want the best chance to be a part of that future,
I have to put the focus outside of myself
not because I want to be selfless,
but because I believe discovery and significance
comes from task, obstacle, and a sense of context.

My clearest task as a theater artist—
To be an agent of thoughtful citizenship and dynamic relationship building;

My largest obstacle—
How my field and practice is perceived by those inside and
outside of it;

My current context—
A nation of clashing ideologies,
polarized public discourse,
stark inequity around resources and capital,
and a love affair in many public and private sectors
with “innovation and creativity”
disconnected from a faith in, or a curiosity towards
the potential of artistic practice.

At the Arena New Play Convening in January, the day after
President Obama’s State of the Union Address, I asked NEA
Chair Rocco Landesman a question—

This is a President who supports the arts and culture,
but even so, the idea of linking the work of the imagination,
at the heart of art making, to creativity and innovation—
not even a passing reference.

Given the lack of value, in mainstream public discourse,
attributed to the power and potential of art and art making
as an engine for vision and discovery;

given the consistently common perception of art as a
consumable commodity rather than a distinctly vital
and healthy part of our social fabric;

what can the NEA do,
on behalf of artists and our fellow Americans
who could benefit from
our being enlisted in this Sputnik moment,
to recognize and foreground the artistic impulse,
the artistic action,
the artistic event
as not just diversionary
or even “meaningfully cultural,”
but rather as a set of muscles without which innovation
and creativity are simply knowledge and experience
waiting to catch fire.

What can the NEA do to bring the value we already offer
at tables all around the nation to our nation's head table,
and name us, artists, as resources who can be reached,
engaged and can be of tremendous service?

The Chairman’s response was to describe the cross-agency
collaborations going on at the Federal level, and to articulate
the work coming out of HUD around their Sustainable
Communities Initiative, developed in partnership with NEA
leadership. It’s good work, and is supporting artist participation
in community planning processes and vision projects.

But we need something more.
I believe it’s twofold:

1, within our own field, a greater understanding of dramaturgy
as an asset that we as theater makers bring not just to our
practice but in contexts not traditionally associated with rooms
dedicated to “creating”;

and 2,

recognition in those contexts that dramaturgy, the making of
meaning, can be useful in rooms where meaning is routinely
made but not always considered.

At Sojourn Theatre, the company I co-founded in 1999,
we speak about a “dramaturgy of event.” We articulate our
belief that theater’s expertise with story, metaphor and
structure doesn’t simply offer us tools for articulating plot
aimed at audience experience;
it offers us ways to build process and partnerships;
it offers us pedagogy for workshops to unfold in rooms of
non self-defined artists;
it offers us options for how the ensemble functions;
dramaturgy invites our conscious attention to the utility
of our organizational tools (how we organize intent,
imaginative action and expressive acts towards a shared goal)
when approaching a challenge whether it's in rehearsal,
in community, or in the space that constantly arises at the
intersection of the two.

The practice of democracy includes building coalitions,
articulating core values, examining sticking places and
shared values in multi-ideological dialogues, listening,
synthesizing and seeking common ground and potentially
shared legislative agendas.

This practice is the collaborative,
imaginative making of meaning.

This practice is in desperate need of dramaturgy.

The theater I’m describing is happening already.
The practice is evolving all over the nation as artists,
communities and leaders find themselves crafting
new approaches to longstanding dilemmas.

We need to demonstrate theater’s capacity as a set of potent
practices that civic and legislative leaders (and organizations)
can recognize as usable, applicable tools.


*By establishing a useful set of frames and vocabulary for the
theater, performance and cross-disciplinary sectors to aid in
productive, cumulative field-wide dialogue about this work.

*By re-framing the national conversation around
“the value of art”;
*By placing theater firmly in a set of useful practices
that civic and legislative leaders (and organizations)
recognize as potent, applicable tools;
*By creating a readable, organized, and responsive online
view of what I'll call here “Civic Theater” in the US;
*By making clear paths for young artists looking to engage in
meaningful work at the intersection of performance and democracy;
*By connecting academic and research settings to the field of
professional practice via a curated and intentional exchange of
opportunities and learnings.

The conversation surrounding this work can be complicated in
our field. Aaron Landsman (a NYC- based artist with whom I
was discussing this) and I recently had a brief exchange on
email in reference to his newest work, City Council Meeting

I'm hearing other peoples' framing for my piece—sometimes it
seems like they are missing something or focused intently on one
aspect, which, because of who I'm more commonly in contact
with, tends to be the formal aspect.

I think that really happens—
You know, we make meaning not out of what someone else
intends us to hear and see,
but through our own perceptions
and our own perceptions are totally ruled by the models
that already make sense to us.
So, to ask people to engage with and discuss our
work in the ways we want it contextualized,
we need to assert clear models which
give folks access to those contexts and therefore our intent.

Without an understanding of context and intent,
manifesting what we can newly imagine into the world
becomes next to impossible.

An idea cannot generate traction if it can’t be understood
on its own terms.

Artistic practice offers an invaluable asset to a nation when
collaborative civic imagination is desperately needed.

Theater, a practice that demands a much-needed spirit of play
to succeed, offers time and place based tools to create space
for encounter, dialogue, analysis and reflection.

So as a field,
or as a small corner of a very large field,
let’s make the offer.

Let us articulate what is powerful about our work now in ways
that can escape, post this particular moment, the twin death
knells of ideology and partisanship.

Let us build a public perception scaffolding that will allow not
just relationships and specific funding initiatives to survive,
but will offer our work up as a recognized asset in civic innovation.

Let us bring dramaturgy, and the utility of theater practice, into civic and legislative spaces where dialogues are had and decisions are made.

Let’s reach out—
to every legislator in the nation
to every civic leader
to every university provost
to every foundation board head
to every conference like Grantmakers in the Arts
and Faith Leaders in the Midwest
and the Conference of US mayors
and lets howl the message
that artistic practice
when engaged in conceptual collaborative thinking at local levels
can be useful
can be a specific tool for dialogue, for problem-solving, and for

What do we talk about
when we examine what it means to make new theater today?


I want to talk about the Civic—
not just in how it serves our field, but how we serve it.
How we engage it.

Lets talk about new theater today
with a passion, with a belief
not just in the written word,
in the live event
in the actor meeting the audience,
but passionately invested in our own potential
to be meaningful partners in building a healthy society.

Still to come in August and September:

Part 2

Defining a social society, a cognitive age, and how new
research is paving the way to look at art as not just
enlightening but absolutely necessary for a democracy
to make policy that works.

Part 3

What I have founded, and am now building—
The Center for Performance, Public Practice
& Civic Innovation;
its focus on Plays, Projects, Research and Labs;
and how supporting development,
and dissemination
of new models and existing best practice
is crucial at this moment.