Revolutionary Compassion

A few days ago, David Cote at Time Out New York posted Nine Wishes For NYC Theater. This post generated some thoughtful responses from 99 Seats, Rob at Wicked Stage and Matthew Freeman, with most of the focus on the fifth wish:

“5. Bloggers: Engage/enrage
This item will generate noise (and that’s the point): I wish bloggers would mix it up more. Does it take a Rachel Corrie fiasco to generate heat? The theater blogosphere has been dull, insular and quiet lately. We need more arguments, more dirt, more bloody knock-down-drag-out fights. Not just self-promotion, obscure manifestos and production diaries. And here’s hoping for a new breed of long-form critics worth reading.”

This also prompted some negative comments from George Hunka of Superfluities , which led to this strong response from David on TONY’s blog, Upstaged.

I would like to suggest an alternative model for #5.

First, let’s give rage it’s due: it can be a powerful motivating force. It can take the form of a necessary righteousness in the face of legitimate oppression.

But rage comes with a significant cost. It obscures, rather than clarifies. It sees stereotypes instead of complexities, enemies instead of allies, two dimensions instead of three. It is more interested in defending turf than affecting change. Above all, rage believes with 100% certainty that it is right. Where there is no doubt, there is little opportunity for change.

That may sound Jedi-ish, but I mean it practically. It is almost impossible to change someone’s deepest convictions though battle unless you are willing to obliterate them.

The best way to create a change is through compassion. Not a passive pity, but a deep empathy that is transformed into action. It begins from a place of humility – I don’t know the answers. It moves to a place of empathy – this person’s experience might have something to teach me. Then sympathy – finding a positive value in that other experience. And from that deep knowledge, acting to improve our mutual existence – compassion.

Compassion is more difficult then rage, but ultimately, more effective. If that seems a little too much like a John Lennon song for bare-knuckle theatre-o-sphere, I would suggest you haven’t considered the true revolutionary possibilities, and practicalities, of compassion.

Two things driving this post: Flux went to the Kennedy library in Boston last weekend to research our next play. Among other things, we watched an extraordinary video on the life and death of Bobby Kennedy. Whatever his flaws, the compassion he had for others, and his legitimate wishes for peace and human dignity, broke over me in waves. It was far more devastating than a fight, and the fire from that video has only begun to play itself out in my own life.

Second example: at the NYIT Awards this week, the revolutionary act of making the Indie theatre field engage critically with itself through peer evaluation manifested in a moving celebration. This is only one example – has been doing this for years. It goes beyond just showing up and saying this has value, though of course that act is important. They are teaching the next generation of theatre artists to engage compassionately, and yes critically, with each other’s work. If you don’t believe that’s had a profound affect on the quality of the field…well, I’d say tell me what angle you’re looking from. From here in the fray, it’s plain to see the impact of the revolutionary compassion of organizations like and NYITA.

I’d like to widen the lens just a little bit. Please read (or better yet, listen) this speech Bobby Kennedy gave in South Africa in 1966, the speech that his brother read at his funeral, and for a moment, imagine two things:

1. He is talking to you
2. And he is talking about a change in which your theatre will play an essential role:
(the highlights are my own)

“There is a discrimination in this world and slavery and slaughter and starvation. Governments repress their people; and millions are trapped in poverty while the nation grows rich; and wealth is lavished on armaments everywhere. These are differing evils, but they are common works of man. They reflect the imperfection of human justice, the inadequacy of human compassion, our lack of sensibility toward the sufferings of our fellows.

“But we can perhaps remember – even if only for a tirne – that those who live with us are our brothers; that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek – as we do – nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.

“Surely this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely, we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men. And surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our own hearts brothers and countrymen once again.

“Our answer is to rely on youth – not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease. The cruelties and obstacles of this swiftly changing planet will not yield to obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans. They cannot be moved by those who cling to a present that is already dying, who prefer the illusion of security to the excitement and danger that come with even the most peaceful progress. It is a revolutionary world we live in; and this generation at home and around the world, has had thrust upon it a greater burden of responsibility than any generation that has ever lived.

“Some believe there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills. Yet many of the world’s great movements, of thought and action, have flowed from the work of a single man. A young monk began the Protestant reformation, a young general extended an empire from Macedonia to the borders of the earth, and a young woman reclaimed the territory of France. It was a young Italian explorer who discovered the New World, and the thirty-two-year-old Thomas Jefferson who proclaimed that all men are created equal.

“These men moved the world, and so can we all. Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

“Few are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change. And I believe that in this generation those with the courage to enter the moral conflict will find themselves with companions in every corner of the globe.

“For the fortunate among us, there is the temptation to follow the easy and familiar paths of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who enjoy the privilege of education. But that is not the road history has marked out for us. Like it or not, we live in times of danger and uncertainty. But they are also more open to the creative energy of men than any other time in history. All of us will ultimately be judged and as the years pass we will surely judge ourselves, on the effort we have contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which our ideals and goals have shaped that effort.

“The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and their fellow man alike, timid and fearful in the face of new ideas and bold projects. Rather it will belong to those who can blend vision, reason and courage in a personal commitment to the ideals and great enterprises of American Society.

“Our future may lie beyond our vision, but it is not completely beyond our control. It is the shaping impulse of America that neither fate nor nature nor the irresistible tides of history, but the work of our own hands, matched to reason and principle, that will determine our destiny. There is pride in that, even arrogance, but there is also experience and truth. In any event, it is the only way we can live.

What if we tried to hold our conduct to that standard?
How would we make theatre differently?
How would we engage in each other’s work differently?
How would we use the astonishing creation of the internet, this thing that allows for an unparalleled freedom of communication, how would we use it to further the great work of making a more compassionate world?

Well, I don’t know. I’m trying to figure it out. This blog is one way to do that. Sometimes it’s the necessary self-promotion of a raffle. Other times, it’s about sharing our process, or championing the work of artists we love, or taking a wider angle at the challenges of the field and how we can help solve them. Post by post, we’re feeling out the best ways to do that, learning from those like, NYITA, Fractured Atlas, and others who are already leading.

My hope is that is we will always do so from a place of compassion, and with a humility that doesn’t shirk from our responsibility to each other and the world.

I don’t know. But I do know NYC theater is much bigger than me, than Flux, than any one reviewer or blogger or artist or audience member; sometimes I think it is a much bigger thing than we have allowed ourselves to hope; and no one person gets to decide who belongs to it, and who does not; that belonging is decided solely by the work of our own hands; and the sum total of that work will only be reached if we stop shouting at each other and start believing in the unique dignity each one of us brings to the great work.

It is the work of our own hands.
There is pride in that, even arrogance, but there is also experience and truth.
In any event, it is the only way we can live.

8 Comments on "Revolutionary Compassion"

  1. macrogers · July 24, 2009 at 5:29 am · Reply
  2. DPS · July 24, 2009 at 3:41 pm · Reply
  3. Matt A · July 25, 2009 at 5:04 pm · Reply
  4. janeelephant · July 25, 2009 at 8:06 pm · Reply
  5. August Schulenburg · July 27, 2009 at 10:33 pm · Reply
  6. dani the girl · February 9, 2010 at 6:26 am · Reply
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