Lessons from Newt Gingrich: or how we in the theatre and dance communities can stop acting like losers and learn to make the nation love us

philadelphia theater and Newt

The man and his lady.

How often have you heard that performing arts are dying, that we’re a niche market, that you can never make a living off of it, that we’re a charity case? That dance and theatre will never be the way it used to? (Pre-television I think this means.) Have you ever caught yourself saying, as an excuse for some failure or inability to accomplish a simple task or even some slightly unseemly arrangement in your programming: well, you have to understand, that’s life in the performing arts.

Do you accept as given that theatre and dance will never be as culturally or socially as relevant as TV or film? Has it ever bothered you, that whether through foundation giving or corporate giving or the generosity of patron saints, that you have geared your programming, and by dint your organization, to appease the money that comes from those aforementioned sources, as oppose to appeasing your artistic vision and audiences?Yet you still make the spurious claim that you are not commercial because you have sold out to your funding “partners” as oppose to Dentyne?

Do you accept the death of theatre and dance as a given, were it not for the life support provided by the charity of strangers?

Then you need to take some lessons from Newt Gingrich, man of wisdom! Yes, my friend, while you accept foundation dollars given to you by chemical and energy giants Sunoco (Pew) and the former Rohm and Haas Chemicals (William Penn Foundation, the various Hass family foundations), as well as from the financial industry like PNC Bank (recently called out for their financing the coal industry’s mountain top removal, no worse I suppose than most banks since they nearly all finance wars, dictators, foreign manufacturing with slave-like labor, things of general evil—remember the Octopus!), you may be aghast at the prospect of taking a lesson from a Republican!

I was reading an article in the Dec. 13, 2010 New Yorker, earlier this week, in the vain attempt to finally throw it in the recycling bin. The article (“House Rule” by Peter J. Boyer, pp. 58–69) was about John Boehner’s (check out his fabulously dull and ugly website) impending leadership of the House of Representatives. (I know, it’s no longer impending, but I read the thing anyway. )

Let’s go back to the 80s. The article recaps how Newt Gingrich (Boehner’s early political successes were largely due to Gingrich’s tutelage) devised a plan for Republicans to win the House. Boyer writes, “After Newt Gingrich served a few terms as a member of the Republican minority in Congress, a circumstance he detested, he devised a plan to achieve what most of his colleagues could scarcely conceive—a Republican majority in the House. Gingrich believed that the G.O.P. had been the minority party for so long—ever since the first Eisenhower Administration—that Republicans had lost the ability to imagine themselves as anything else.” (p. 63, my emphasis.)

My friends, we are like those Republicans in the 1980s wallowing in defeat and self-pity because we’ve been down so long it’s become part of our vocabulary, an ingrained acceptance of our 4th class nature, wallowing in the notion that our chosen field is forever doomed to fragility and life-support.

This is not a position that is going to win more audiences.

Let’s read on. “In 1986, he took control of GOPAC, a backwater Republican training organization, and under his leadership, it shaped a cadre of conservative politicians who were prepared to seize the majority.” Yes, Newt swung into action, determined to change his party’s thinking, to actively seek power by outlining a vision that that power will enable, as oppose to accepting the political crumbs.

My first notion is to look at the disconnect of our attitudes in regard to speaking about the performing arts and some positives out in the greater world. Let’s take dance—has dance ever been safe from imminent extinction? All the time, people bemoaning the state of dance, and the trouble in gaining audiences, that nobody respects dance, that the audiences are shrinking, and soon, I guess, we’ll all be dead. We trudge on, accept the dwindling audiences, the bad reportage, the misunderstandings, the embarrassments, nod about how tough it is, accept that dance will never have any real mass appeal again.

Have you turned on your television recently? (I know you have because you are in the arts and thus prone to procrastination.) So You Think You Can Dance, Dancing With The Stars, and Glee are all top 10 shows on national TV and have been for several years. Alright, so Dancing With The Stars isn’t exactly of high artistic merit, but it does have respect for the form, and emphasizes the difficulty of mastering technique and form, and it shows celebrities (of a sort) celebrating dance. Glee is more musical theatre, but it is replete with dance numbers (and musical theatre is also where dancers end up getting better paychecks). So You Think You Can Dance has really good dancers, and even hires and gives shout outs to good modern choreographers (even if the 2-minute routines may not be their greatest works). Look, it may not be the type of dance you’re creating or presenting, but it is dance, and if you had just a fraction of that audience you’d never have to worry about selling out a show again.

Before these shows existed, no one in the dance community (or most any community) would have thought that TV shows using dance as its selling point to be possible much less wildly successful. Now that they’re wildly successful, let’s not simply snub them because it might not be what we do. Now is the time to think, huh, dance shows are the most popular shows on television, perhaps there is something for me to build off of. If network TV is using the word “dance” in order to sell shows (which it is doing), then you can’t use the excuse that the word “dance” turns off audiences. Clearly that is not true. Clearly, dance has positive associations on a mass level.

Clearly, we need to be expanding our reach beyond whatever targeted email lists you have been acquiring.

It is time to stop seeing “dance” as a downer word, or an anti-audience medium, because you are wrong to think so. It is time to understand that even if your work is not suited for commercial television, that doesn’t mean that it is not suited for audiences beyond your little circle, and beyond the circle of dance presenters generally.

Originally, I planned to avoid mentioning the next part in the Gingrich story because it is such right wing Newspeak and didn’t at first see how well and wisely Newt was communicating to the Philadelphia performing arts scene through his coded evilness. But as summed up by Boyer:

“One of GOPAC’s most effective tools was an audio instruction series, teaching conservatives to communicate their program in the pithy style mastered by Gingrich himself. The mail-order audiotapes included specific phrases, recorded by Gingrich himself, that listeners were to memorize, and repeat every opportunity until they had internalized the message: ‘You favor a political revolution. You want to replace the welfare state with an opportunity society. You favor workfare over welfare. You want to lock prisoners up and you’re actually prepared to give up some political pork barrel to build as many prisons as you need.’”

A mass breeding of neo-con automatons, yay! Yes, at first, I felt kind of gross reading this, but looking at the idea of changing how we talk about the performing arts has a lot of merit. Most artists will throw up at the idea of repeating a pile of unimaginative positive stock phrases, but the truth is that the performing arts community already falls back on a stockpile of lame phrases they use to determine how they present their work and how they talk about their artistic discipline. (If you ever bother to read the copy for dance and theatre companies, you’ll notice that it is generally unbearably lame, poorly written, and pretentious, and precludes the entrance of newcomers.)

Philadelphia dance community and Newt

So handsome

The performing arts community needs to convene into little soviets and discover new ways to talk about dance and theatre, ways that are not defeatist in nature, that doesn’t thank people for their support, as much as for being a fan. That a show was not made possible because of the generous donations by so-and-so and such-and-such, but that the show was made possible by the artists who created the fucking thing. That dance and theatre are not dying art forms but thriving art forms just by the fact that I am putting on a show that’s really fucking cool, motherfuckers. Stop thanking people for keeping performing arts alive in Philadelphia but thank them for being part of such an awesome performing arts scene in Philadelphia.

Take out all those apologetic and subservient words and language that are used to talk about performing arts and performing arts companies, and start talking about the work that is being created and how it is the next big thing. Start using language that values performing arts for its own merits and not just how it funding the arts allows restaurants to sell cocktails to the patrons. Stop appropriating language from other disciplines—such as “research and development”—in order to position the creative process in a way that sounds like the scientific process (believe me, it is not) and therefore “serious.” Dance and theatre are “serious” by virtue of their art, not by using word-association to infer etymological relation to other more “respected” disciplines.

It’s not simply putting a positive spin on everything; it’s about using language that values the work you are doing and the community you are a part of.

And instead of looking for a road back to the hey-day of Ziegfeld Follies and Fosse, we should be looking for a road forward to a new era of performing arts when our work dominates cultural discussion on a national level.

Viva la revolucion!

Thanks Newt!

Published by the Philadelphia Performing Arts Authority

P.S. I am not suggesting that funders—government, private foundation, commercial or otherwise—should be treated with derision, ignored, or not taken advantage of. You should always respect your funders, or at least their act of donation. But the dialogue needs to change, and the shift needs to focus on the art and the audience. (And I don’t mean audience as a measure of success, I mean audience as a member of the performance experience.) Programming to suit the funder leads to artistic stagnation, and in some cases programming that the organization is ill-suited to follow through on.

P.P.S. Obama took a 50-state approach to defeat McCain, something Bush did to Kerry. Kerry just gave up on states, enabling Bush to go into states he knew he wouldn’t win, and would force Kerry to spend more time there in a panic that he might lose one of his “must-win” states. Of course, this is something Clinton did to Bush the elder, and Reagan did to Carter, and so on. But the lesson of this kind of campaigning is that you should never stop looking for fans, and you need to stop assuming only a certain type of person will like your work. From selling the Philly Fiction books (which I am a publisher and editor of) on the street, we have learned that you can never identify a reader, and that there are secret readers in every crowd, including weight lifters. When we sold in Fishtown we sold to OF (Original Fishtown) ladies probably 2-to-1 over hipsters, who sport a reading a book look (without the burden of actually having to open a book). Take a 50-state approach with your art.

P.P.P.S. The Japanese novelist and nightclub owner Murakami wrote a New Yorker essay a ways back, like a year, that his aim was not to make everyone like him, but to make 1 out of every 10 people love what he was doing. He knew, eventually, that would lead to a large, diverse, and devoted fan base—a fan base that would speak to his work on its own, providing introductions to the next wave of his readers. Don’t know what that has to do with this article, but it’s not so much about “the group” as individuals within groups.

P.P.P.P.S. A thing about Republicans—David Gould, the drummer of our old band Hot n Hazy, said about meeting a Republican. “When I meet someone who says they’re a Democrat I don’t take it seriously, because it’s kind of meaningless, like marking other. But the problem is when I meet someone who says she’s a Republican, I instantly know she has an agenda, and it’s just kind of weird.”

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About the author

Josh McIlvain

Josh McIlvain is the artistic director of SmokeyScout Productions which he co-founded in 2008 with Deborah Crocker (to whom he is also married!). He has had more than 115 productions of some 70 plays throughout the U.S., including more than 38 New York City productions. Josh is also the leader of the rock collective Josh McIlvain & The Generals of Sexcop (listen to the hot tracks at sxcp.bandcamp.com!), the editor/publisher of Philly Fiction (collections of short stories set in Philadelphia and written by local writers), and the editor of the FringeArts booklet and blog.