Eisenhower Fellowship 2016
In 2016, spread over two separate trips, I traveled to Spain and Russia on an Eisenhower Fellowship.
I wanted to see how theatre is made in these two countries, how artists thrive and survive, what impulses are behind their work and how the systems are set up (or not set up) to support emerging artists as well as to link theatre schools with the professional theatre world. My goal was to find new ideas and to bring back to my work within the University of the Arts/Pig Iron Devised Performance Program and Pig Iron Theatre Company some novel ways to improve the theatre-making community in the United States. I come away from the year stuffed as though I’ve eaten everything at the world’s greatest potluck. I spent time with independent theatre companies in Siberia. I spoke with funders within Spain’s Cervantes Institute. I watched classes at the famed Moscow Art Theatre School and taught workshops to emerging theatre leaders in St. Petersburg. I saw how the arts can transform an entire city (Bilbao) and how funding cuts force artists to think creatively about how to find audiences for their work. The experience moved me beyond belief and will, undoubtedly, lead to new initiatives for my students as well as large field-wide conversations about sustaining and nurturing the health of our sector (artistically and financially) in the coming decades. I am left with impressions, stories, rallying cries, images, questions and energy to continue to build cultural bridges between nations. I am also left with the awareness that artists in many corners of the globe have similar struggles and similar desires.
Part I: Spain
A Story From Spain
In Bilbao I walked by an elegant 19th century train station with its thousands of small windows and delicate iron work. This was a small, Spanish version of that Parisian former train station, the Musee d’Orsay. My good friend and guide, Benjamin Alonso, told me that this was one of the train stations in Bilbao. Where is the other, I asked. Oh, the other is right behind this one, he told me. Why build two train stations right next to one another? One is for trains with a small wheel gauge and the other is for trains with a larger wheel gauge, Benjamin told me. Oh, so one is a regional train and one is a national train, I inquired, sure that I understood. No, not that either, he told me. There are city trains and regional trains but here are just two different national systems, built at different times under different circumstances. We still use both. Perhaps the one with the smaller gauge can’t go as fast, he said.
One of the train stations in Bilbao.
To me this was surprising and somehow emblematic of Spain itself. At every turn there seem to be two different ways of doing things, one an older way, another from a newer era. At a meeting at ACE, a funder that helps Spanish artists tour abroad and foreign artists come to Spain for artistic exchanges, among other things, I was told that ACE used to be three different entities that have combined into one. Thus their current mandate is the result of a merger of three separate government institutions.
There are two truths that operate simultaneously.
While visiting a national theatre school (ESAD) in Seville I sat down with the school director to hear what keeps him up at night. I asked about the curriculum and the faculty and the way in which the school is, or isn’t, attached to the professional theatre. The director, a playwright, looked at me and explained through our translator that his hands are completely tied by the Ministry of Education in Madrid. The Ministry dictates what can and can’t be taught every hour of every day throughout the 4 year program. Faculty have no flexibility to adapt the curriculum, to teach what they feel is relevant in Seville in 2017? No, he responded. That must be frustrating, I said. Unimaginably, he answered. He added that I could go to any of the ESAD’s throughout the country (of which there are 7 or 8, I believe) and they will be teaching the same thing in each one. What a calamity! Additionally, he added, the way that contracts with faculty are set up, they are paid minimally only for the hours they are scheduled to teach. Therefore, many of them clock in and clock out, just meeting expectations of the Ministry of Education.
A vivid picture began to emerge. The centralization of art and culture means that the relationship between professional and student artists is strained and that schools are disconnected from the professional field. But I remembered the two train gauges and began to wonder if I was seeing everything or if there was a parallel system not governed by the state..
With the ESAD faculty in Seville.
On my last night in Spain, I was invited to see a performance a few hours outside of Madrid. I was told it would be performed in the forest, well after 10pm. My flight was leaving the next day but this would be my only chance to meet and spend time with a company called Ultramarinos who, on paper at least, sounded like a company very similar to Pig Iron. I took a cab to an outlying bus station, paid my 11 Euro for the regional bus and headed off toward the forest. Two and a half hours later, the bus pulled up into a dusty bus station in a tiny little town. A 60 year old man, bald on top with orange curly hair ringing his neck – every bit the image of a circus clown – winked at me and I knew he was my ride. I piled into his minivan and up the mountain we drove, hitting nearly every pothole, stone and tree branch that came in our path. It was like I had been cast in a Spanish Mel Brooks farce. The clown spoke to me in very broken English as we ascended. We laughed at the situation. Darkness had descended. The air was clear and the trees were sharp silhouettes off to the side of the now dirt road. After 30 minutes, we pulled into a little parking lot and began walking into the forest, a dim cellphone lighting the way. After another few minutes, I saw some lights, heard some chatter and smelled a barbecue. Suddenly, I was plunged into an outdoor amphitheatre, hidden in the density of the trees, but filled with 300 people who were eagerly awaiting a performance of Pinnocchio. It was nearly 11pm. No one was worried about the time. Picnics were laid out on the ground, each with at least one open bottle of wine. Sausage, cheese, barbecued meats. Finally, at 11:30, the actors took the stage, the stage lights, hooked up to a generator, turned on and Pinocchio emerged from a tree trunk as though he was being birthed in the middle of this magical forest.
Clearly, this performance made a huge impression on me. Not only was it a magical night that is etched into my Eisenhower experience. And not only was it a tremendous encounter with the kind gentlemen of Ultramarinos who continue to work as an artistic trio, creating and performing throughout Spain with their hand-crafted performance works. It was evidence that, indeed, there are two systems operating simultaneously, both essential to the health of the culture of the nation. It might be complicated to get from point A to point B, requiring the use of both systems. But one system needs the other to stay in balance. There was an audience for riveting live theatre. There was experimentation and artists who are working outside of the dictates of the Ministry of Culture. There is a counterpoint to the rigidity of the national theatre system. I just had to travel deep into the forest to find it.
Tabakalera International Center for Contemporary Culture
My stay in San Sebastian was meant primarily to see Tabakalera, a former tobacco factory that has recently opened as a cultural center. But it also gave me a chance to see the 2016 European City of Culture up close as the European world shines a light on the local Basque region in general and San Sebastian’s magic in particular. Tabakalera was finished just in time, opening in October 2015, but was still very much in the process of being completed in mid-2016. It is grand, a space for big ideas and big projects. I walk in and immediately want to hang something from the ceiling, sing choral music in the atrium, prepare a performance feast on the deck overlooking the city and the Atlantic Ocean. As of now, though, they can’t handle too many new projects or commissions of new work for the space itself. It is enough to host events for the Donostia (the Basque name for San Sebastian) 2016 City of Culture and to support rentals of its grand spaces. For me the thing that made the biggest impression was the public library. Housed on the 2nd or 3rd floor, the library is a model for the 21st century. It has a “quiet room” for those that prefer a library to resemble the library of their youth. But the main spaces are for the expansion of knowledge, for making, for testing your curiosity. Want to play the trombone? Go ahead, there is a trombone for public use. Want to make a video with a green screen? Go ahead, there is a green screen set up in one corner of the lobby and cameras for your use. Want to make your own poetry magazine? There are publishing tools – online and the old fashioned tools – for your use. Want to design and print something in 3D? Sure thing. There is a 3D printer and plenty of ink/wax/plastic (I don’t know what material they use for this) in a variety of colors. You might need to wait a few hours as something the size of a roll of quarters could take several hours. Don’t know how to design in 3D? No worries. There is a kind “librarian” who is there to help. While you wait for your 3D print to arrive, why not write some music on one of the many keyboards. Or perhaps you’ll want to book the private screening room to share your short film with a dozen friends. All is possible in the Tabakalera library. They even have books. In fact, another organization closed recently and donated their important collection of art books – rare and in terrific condition – to Tabakalera. There is a video game section, a collection of films and plenty of computers to serve any need you might have.
The Tabakalera library.
There is a clear mandate for the “public” in Spain. The Ministry of Culture is revered, a pillar of society. Though very political, it gives Spanish citizens a sense of belonging and a sense that the arts and culture are accessible to all. In countless ways and in countless spaces I saw in action the idea that the government is the investor and protector of the arts. There was even mistrust at times in a system in which private entities – patrons, corporate sponsors – are dictating the role the arts should play in society, a system I explained to many people is the way funding generally works in the U.S. I was certainly left with a big question about who the arts and meant for and how the arts should be supported.
The European Cities of Culture – two per year – are offered special funding from the EU. More significantly, however, the EU shines a marketing light on these cities and visitors come in droves, helping put these cities on a larger cultural map. Why don’t we have U.S. Cities of Culture? What if, for instance, Memphis and Boise were the U.S. Cities of Culture 2020? Wouldn’t this drive visitors to these places, exposing the interesting and unique cultural treasures of these cities to a large audience? Wouldn’t this build bridges between citizens and help forge civic pride? Wouldn’t this help spread cultural dollars around, giving a necessary boost to cultural institutions that don’t have a bullhorn loud enough to reach beyond their region?
The renovation of the Tabakalera was largely funded by a Savings Bank who have a special tax incentive designed by the federal government. As I understand it, in lieu of paying federal taxes, a savings bank can invest that money into cultural organizations. The magnificent MATADERO cultural complex in Madrid is another such project with immense funding coming from banks who partner with the city to build lasting spaces for which artists and audiences benefit. We have some tax incentives in the U.S. for individuals to think in philanthropic terms. Why can’t the tax system go a few steps further and incentivize businesses to participate in the cultural livelihood of the city, the region and the nation?
My friend Benjamin in Bilbao recounted to me the history of Bilbao. Like Philadelphia, it was an industrial city known for heavy industries like steel, iron and ship building. The city was covered in layers of soot and black dust from years of factories spewing out waste. The river was dirty. Most citizens worked for the factories. Their bodies echoed the work they did. These were strong, muscular people who walked like steel beams and lived like iron. I had a clear image of the city throughout much of the 20th century. No one, outside of Spain especially, had ever paid much attention to Bilbao. Barcelona, on the other hand, specialized in a much finer work – textiles. People worked with their hands but in a much different way than those from Bilbao. In Barcelona, there was dexterity in the fingers, lightness in the effort. In Bilbao, fingers were there only to support the whole hand and the effort was rooted in the core of the body. But after Franco’s regime ended in the 80’s, the whole country had a cultural explosion and Bilbao and Barcelona were both swept up in it. Bilbao was the center of a punk rock movement. The sound of the steel mills gave way to a rough-hewn punk aesthetic, carrying the weight of the metal into the music. Barcelona gave birth to new forms of dance and theatrical performance. The lightness was there, even if the sentiment was one of revolution and explosion. Fura del Baus, a performance company from Barcelona, famously would fly over their audience on ropes, experimenting with every way they could defy the rigid past that Franco had mandated. But both cities, and indeed both regions which gained some autonomy from the centralized regime in Madrid at this time, benefited from major cultural investment. The Barcelona Olympics in 1988 brought visitors from all around the world who basked in Barcelona’s unique architecture, food, location on the Mediterranean and the cultural institutions profited from this re-birth of what is now a major international city. Bilbao was in bad shape once the major industries dried up. High unemployment, drugs and separatist fighting hurt Bilbao badly. But Guggenheim decided to invest in the city, building what has become a major international art destination thanks in large part to Frank Gehry’s stunning architecture. One building literally turned the city around. No longer is this a city of heavy industry, heavy strides and blackened buildings. It is now a city of contemporary art and architecture. If you are a world-class architect who doesn’t have a building in Bilbao it is hard to call yourself a world-class architect. At every turn, I was face-to-face with yet another strange, unforgettable building. And of course the Guggenheim is all it is cracked up to be. Inside and out, the building creates a space that conjures up strong feelings. The undulating metal on the outside is soothing, cool, fish-like and monumental. The spaces inside are gargantuan, natural, epic, cave-like and cathedral like at the same time. You move into gallery spaces where the art is the sole focus and then back into the atrium where the sense of scale is nothing short of spiritual.
Exterior & interior of the Guggenheim Bilbao.
A Rallying Cry
The first words out of nearly every mouth I spoke with were “the crisis”. In every city there was a common refrain that the financial crisis of 2008 had hit Spain hard and had not spared the arts and culture sector. Many artists left the country and still haven’t returned, finding places like Amsterdam, Antwerp and Berlin to have more support for artists and, therefore, a larger community. Ultramarinos, the company who performed their Pinocchio in the forest, make their living through touring their original works throughout Spain. They won the national theatre prize several years ago and invested the cash prize (30,000 Euro), in a Mercedes van that can transport lighting, props, costumes and basically all the gear for their show to facilitate their touring schedule. In 2008 they had 180 performances throughout the year. In 2016, they had 90. Their revenue had been cut in half. Major venues, like Tabakalera and Matadero, had been built with tax revenue from Savings Banks but there wasn’t always money left over for programming. Here were these fantastic spaces without the resources to adequately fill them with interesting work. The situation for theatre seems to be slowly recovering but for dance and other forms it hasn’t yet improved much.
A Beacon of Hope
The most impressive institution I visited was Mercat De Les Flors in Barcelona. I think it is a model of how an institution can serve artists at a variety of different moments in their career. First and foremost, Mercat De Les Flors is a Dance House with regular programming in their three venues. They host major dance performances from around the world as well as homegrown Spanish dance companies. They define their artistic mandate as including all physical forms from classical dance to circus to dance theatre and even, at times, physical theatre.
Mercat de Les Flors
What I took away, though, was not their producing model but their residency and development model. They have 5 different tiers of residencies. The top tier is reserved for one or two artists at a time. They are given a salary for 5 years and during this time Mercat will premiere two of their works. Mercat is part of a European Dance House consortium and so these artists are represented to many other venues throughout Europe. This is for world-class dance artists who are at the top of the field. One tier below is a program for mid-career artists who need a home base and need resources to take their work to the next level. They are given considerable funding for a major project that might be developed over 2 years. They are given rehearsal space, technical support and all the bells and whistles that go into preparing for a premiere. The middle tier is for artists with a proven track record. They are offered support towards a premiere as well; though it might be more suitable for a smaller venue. Tier three will have an artistic advisor/mentor available to help guide the Tier 3 artist’s work and career choices. Tiers 4 and 5 are progressively smaller amounts of money but similar in their holistic approach to artistic development. Tiers 4 and 5 can access numerous apartments to house out of town artists and have dedicated rehearsal space over several months of work. There might be a small stipend as well but more importantly these artists are supported with space, time, mentorship and technical support. These residencies end with works-in-progress. Tiers 4 and 5 serve artists in their 20’s and early 30’s at the beginning of their careers who have produced only a handful of works in the past. I thought this was such a remarkable system addressing artist’s needs at every level of their career and a model which I will continue to promote in the U.S. Young artists need platforms to perform, to meet audiences, to have resources to launch their careers. They also need to be part of a community.