Ask not what your country can do for the arts, ask what the arts can do for the country.Kevin Spacey
The 24th Annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy
April 4, 2011, 6:30 p.m.
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

At exactly the same time as Kevin Spacey was giving that speech at the Kennedy Center–and anger was bubbling up on the interwebs over Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser’s latest post–I was sitting in an elementary school gymnasium, watching a kindergarten concert about spring. Instead of working on this post, I was engaging with art made by quite literally the next generation. I’m proud to say that my son sang all of the songs and did not take his shirt off once, so we’ll call it a good show.

It’s funny that Mr. Spacey made a variation on Kennedy’s famous line, because, thanks to Stephen Spotswood, I’d had another variation of it in my head all afternoon. In talking about the Millennials Project, Mr. Kaiser says:

…the current group of twenty-year-olds (deemed the Millennials) does not have any experiences with us. Will they be there for us when we need them?

And both Stephen and I thought his question was inverted. Ask not what your audience can do for you…

Kaiser’s comment connects back to a thought he shared in this article about the gift that makes the Millennials Project possible.

Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser said 20-somethings spend less time in theaters and have had less exposure to arts education than previous generations, so the center’s programs will move beyond its four walls.

“Earlier generations came back into the arts later as they got older,” Kaiser said. “I’m concerned that this group won’t because they’ve never really had very much exposure to the arts.”

This line of thinking follows from his What is Wrong With the Arts? post from this past February in which he asks, “Where are the new brilliant voices that astonish, educate and entertain us?” (That post fired up playwright Joshua Conkel and musician Daniel Hawkins–among others–at the time.)

Got all that?

Liz Maestri does a nice job responding to specific points in Mr. Kaiser’s most recent post, so I’ll just point you over there. But I do want to speak to the idea of what makes a low or high “cultural I.Q.” He’s surprised and dismayed that someone wouldn’t understand a reference to Caruso. I know who Enrico Caruso was. I could probably answer a run of opera questions on Jeopardy without any problem. It doesn’t make me a fan of opera, and it has nothing to do with whether or not I’m a patron of the arts. It’s just trivia.

A few summers back, I produced a show at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop filled with references to Dante, Mamet, Miller, Mark Twain, Ken Burns, Rachael Ray, even Jacques Cousteau. But an audience could watch and enjoy that show without knowing who any of those people are. Would they appreciate it more with the right frames of reference? Sure, but it’s incidental. I’d be glad they came either way. And I was.

As for this idea that “they’ve never really had very much exposure to the arts,” that’s just nonsense. As I’ve said elsewhere, our world is infused with art and story everywhere we look. If you want to impress upon us the importance of the arts, start making those connections to our everyday life instead of cutting people off from some velvet-roped ideal of “The Arts.”

The arts aren’t only inside certain buildings at certain times of day or night. Even if you want to narrow the focus to artistic performances and cultural events, these are more readily available to a wider audience online than ever before, whether through Digital Theatre and On the Boards or even short clips on YouTube and theatre websites. These don’t replace the experience of a live, in-the-room performance, but they serve to promote the idea of going to see such performances live and in person.

Moreover, in framing his thesis as “we in the arts” and “the current group of twenty-year-olds…does not have any experiences with us,” Mr. Kaiser makes a great leap in logic. Maybe this age group doesn’t have many experiences with the Kennedy Center outside of seeing Wicked. But make no mistake, the twenty-somethings are seeing theatre and other live performances. This line of thinking is similar to the narrow focus on what makes for a proper cultural I.Q. And it resonates with the inverted thinking behind “Will they be there for us when we need them?”

I have a question for Mr. Kaiser. He’s wondered about new voices, he’s concerned that twenty-somethings don’t go to the theatre, that they have very little exposure to the arts. Is he aware of the brilliant art being made by people who work in his own building? Better yet, this is art that plays regularly to houses filled with twenty-somethings.

For those who might not know, the longest continuously running performance at the Kennedy Center is a flat-out comic farce, an interactive murder mystery called “Shear Madness.” It’s a fun show, always well done. I’ve seen it several times, but no one would confuse it for high art. I know several cast members who rotate in and out of the show, and in between their stints in “Shear,” they go off and make brilliant art elsewhere.

That’s right. The Kennedy Center is inadvertantly supporting a flourishing of theatre art elsewhere in D.C.

What kind of art is this that’s attracting twenty-something crowds? Shakespeare. Commedia dell’arte. Classically inspired work as well as new plays, new devised works.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Mr. Kaiser, why not go upstairs and see if Marcus Kyd is around. Ask him about the Bootleg Shakespeare shows that wind up turning people away. And if Marcus isn’t in the show right now, ask for Matt Wilson. Ask him about how he’s helped spread Commedia Dell’Arte Day worldwide. If neither of them is in, ask for Joel David Santner. Find out what play he’s developing this month, maybe get to know a new playwright or three.

Ask them about their other theatre work, see what’s coming up and when. I’m sure they’d give you a ticket, but if I were you, I’d offer to buy one anyway, it’s not expensive. And then, if you like their work, bring it into your building. Carve out some time in the season, some space upstairs. It doesn’t have to be a big space, just something that’ll seat people with a space to perform. Keep it casual, affordable. Keep their current price points (or close to them, if you wanted to take a small cut in lieu of rent). Welcome their current audiences and, at the same time, expose their work to your own audiences and subscribers.

They’re already on your payroll, sir, and they’re making the real art elsewhere.

(In the interest of full disclosure, the aformentioned Capitol Hill Arts Workshop show was directed by Joel, co-starred Matt and was generously supported by Marcus. So I know their work well, I know their venues and I know their audiences.)

Instead of trying to guess what might attract the so-called “millennials”–such as “John Legend and the Roots…a street arts festival…that will include flash mobs, murals, circus performances and dancing” as the Millennials Project is described in the above article–why not work with artists and companies already established in D.C. that attract these audiences. There are more than enough companies without permanent homes. Bring them in. Engage their audiences, find out what else they want to see. And let these companies suggest other artists from elsewhere that can work on the same scale.

Let me repeat one thing. Engage the audiences. Loosen up, interact online, don’t just use the @kencen Twitter feed as a billboard. Talk with, not at. Make the audience feel welcome, not intimidated–it is gorgeous, but you have to admit, it can be an intimidating building. Let them know that it’s not just a gleaming monument of marble in Foggy Bottom but a living, thriving incubator for the performing arts.

One more quote, from “What is Wrong With the Arts?”

It is popular to bemoan the fact that young people spend too much time communicating vapid thoughts on Facebook or Twitter. I think this is unfair to younger people. We in responsible arts positions must give them something to talk about.

All right. You admit that bemoaning “vapid conversation” is unfair. There’s no lack of it online, that’s for sure. But come join our conversation. Take a look at the #2amt thread on Twitter, where you can engage directly with theatre artists and companies at all different levels from all over the world. Seriously. You’d be amazed at what kind of new work and ideas you’ll discover out here. You’ll also be surprised at who you might find out here, too–it’s not just twenty-somethings and they’re not just talking about today’s lunch.

You want to give us something to talk about. How about this? Go beyond the current Page to Stage series–which usually runs for three whole days–and turn those readings into living, breathing fully-staged productions. Instead of “more than forty companies,” as last year’s event claimed, tighten the focus and allow the works to breathe, give audiences a chance to see as many of them as possible. Invite the audiences into that process, let them see every step from the page to the stage. Run Page to Stage events intermittently throughout the year. Give audiences a stake in supporting the work, let them be a “street team” to draw more people to the finished works. Connect that new work to the past, illustrate the influences and traditions, create interest for earlier work in new ways and make it affordable for everyone to see.

Use that magnificent gift of seed money to support the so-called “Millennials” making new art. There’s a real project for you, one that would attract more than just a mythical, uncultured millennial audience in your city but attention and awareness from around the country. Some of that art will be brilliant, some of it will not. It’s the law of averages. But. Without risk, there are no rewards. Just the act of supporting it is enough to make a statement. Even a fraction of that seed money put into an endowment to support such a program would be amazing. How amazing? That same aforementioned show we produced on Capitol Hill? The budget was less than $5,000.

And then everyone went back to Foggy Bottom to earn a living in “Shear.”

The Kennedy Center is–or should be–more than a monument. It could be a safe haven for new and exciting work as well as the classics, it could bridge all the eras and audiences and show us the connections between them. It could do so much more than host concerts and touring shows. It could be, as Isaac Butler suggests, an analog to the National Theatre in London. It could truly represent the arts in America at our nation’s capitol along lines I suggested nearly a year ago. It’s up to those in responsible arts positions to help make that shift, to do more than maintain. Give us something to talk with you about.

Ask not what your audiences can do for you, ask what you can do for your audiences. And your artists.

And once you do, they’ll be happy to return the favor.

If you’ve been successful, it is your obligation to send the elevator back down. There’s always someone just below waiting to be invited up.Kevin Spacey
The 24th Annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy
April 4, 2011, 6:30 p.m.
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts


Here’s some of the Twitter reaction from this afternoon, courtesy of Storify…

  • April 5, 2011
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