June 20, 2008

Storytellers: Who Speaks for You?

Most of the storytellers I know consider themselves performing artists (identifying as one is helpful come tax time). However, most of the same storytellers don't consider themselves as part of the larger cultural ecosystem of performing arts.

Partly that's historical: the storytelling revival of the last thirty five years didn't blossom from the performing arts community. If I recall my Sobol correctly, it springboarded off of the traditions carried forward by librarians, folk artists, and the entrepreneurial ambitions of an Eastern Tennessee high school teacher.

But every performing artist starts out focused on their art and craft, their technique and their inspiration. Hopefully, as they mature, they realize the need to broaden their perspective to learn where their art form came from-- and its current state in the cultural milieu.

Scott Walters, a noted theatre blogger (and a professor of drama at University of North Carolina Asheville) had this to say in a recent followup to his visit to the NPAC gathering:

There is another conference in a few days at Americans for the Arts, another organization that can open your mind. But like NPAC last week, the conference at Americans for the Arts will most likely have few artists in attendance. Conferences are expensive, and if you are an artist you may not have the wherewithal to attend one. But I would also venture that, for many artists, there is a lack of interest, a sense that such concerns are "academic" (by which is meant, in our anti-intellectual society, "irrelevant"), and that thinking about the larger issues surrounding the arts is unproductive.

I would argue the opposite. I would argue that action without thought is chaos, and production without purpose is empty. I would argue that the present without a sense of the past is shallow, and intuition without reason is random.

If, as so many people say, theatre has become irrelevant (and I don't think it has; I think it's relevance has gone underground during the tornado of triviality that has swept through the last 25 years) it may be because theatre artists, in the desperate need to simply survive, have lost an awareness of the larger world and their place in it. And what is best about a conference such as NPAC or Americans for the Arts or AlternateROOTs is that you are reminded of your own potential and your own importance.
(As with all my quotes from theatre blogs, replace "theatre" with "storytelling" and read it again.)

All this to say: we performing artists can't wait for someone else to step up to the national conversation on the arts. We're it. Precisely because there are not robust institutions that support storytelling on a national or regional level (key word: robust), it's definitely up to individual artists to step up and join in the national conversation on the arts. In a perfect world, I'd want the administrators, the executive directors, and the university professors who bolster the storytelling community to be leading this charge-- but that's, what, maybe 8 people nationally?

(I confirmed that none of NSN's board attended NPAC. Too bad, since this is precisely the time when NSN is struggling to come up with a viable organizational model.)

American for the Arts Conference link

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