Songs for the Struggling Artist


The Beginning of Authority in Theatre (and Beyond)
July 31, 2017, 12:48 am
Filed under: Leadership, theatre | Tags: , , , ,

At the end of the evening, the young actors were hanging on his arms, pleading for an audition for whatever he did next. He had just joined a company four months before and directed his first show in the months previous. The last time I’d seen him, a year before, he’d asked me for advice about beginning. Now he was asking if I wanted to be his assistant. I have had a company for 16 years and a Master’s Degree in Directing. But no young actors hang on my arms or tell me they will stalk me until I let them audition.

My friend is a white man with an authoritative air. As an actor, he is at his best when playing ridiculously rigid authority figures. If you’re casting a buffoonish General, he’s the best man for the job. He exudes authority. I do not. When I’m returning to acting, I like to perform with this authoritative friend because I enjoy playing characters who subvert authority – the more restrictive the authority figure, the more fun it is to subvert them. My friend is a genius at playing this charismatic authoritative type and it is tremendous fun to be his subversive second in performance.

I understand that I am not an obvious leader. I don’t think anyone would pick me out of a crowd to lead them. But while I don’t project power or authority, I do lead. I can lead. I make space for people and make things happen. I am not a novice at this – and I am happily finding that there are more and more new models for my style of leadership. Jill Soloway is probably not an obvious leader either but I’d follow her anywhere.

I’m thinking about this because I’m thinking about how these kinds of patterns replicate themselves over and over. How men who project a certain kind of authoritarianism are not just taking power but are also given it. This creates and recreates the same authoritative structures in theatre that we’ve always had and all it takes to replicate itself is one charismatic authority announcing himself and a few people to agree to that proposition and enlarge it with adulation and obsequiousness.

The young actors hanging on the arms of my friend wanted to make theatre like the show they’d just seen and they asked my friend if he made work like that. He said “not really no.” But they didn’t care. They just wanted to work with him, whatever he was doing. They could see he exuded authority and they wanted in, no matter what he was doing, their own interests aside. What is ironic is that I DO make work like the show they’d seen and I am always looking for actors are hungry for it. But they weren’t looking at me. And I didn’t need them to. I have zero interest in the fawning.

I suppose I’m writing this now to help those young actors think more broadly than the obvious. Who knows what other connections they failed to make because they were busy responding to the most authoritative voice in the room?

Extrapolate this out a bit and you can see how we ended up in the political situation we’re in – many Americans saw an authoritative charismatic white guy declaring himself to be the greatest, despite the fact that he had zero experience – and they hung on his words and his arms and swore a sort of blind fidelity to wherever he would lead them.

An authoritative person is not always the best authority. It is a kind of gut response to authoritative behavior, I think, to give over to someone who declares himself a leader. It is probably a primal response that is worth investigating with a more reasoned part of the brain. I mean, evolutionarily speaking, there was probably once a good reason to follow the person who stood up, shouted loudly and said, “Follow me!” I’m not an evolutionary psychologist, so I’m not sure what that reason was. But now, given all I’ve learned, I’m less inclined to follow anyone who claims to have the answers. From the Dunning-Kruger effect, to the No True Scotsman fallacy to Confirmation Bias and the Optimism Bias, social science shows us that our instincts, our gut responses are often way off base. Authoritarianism works, not because someone is a good authority, but because people are so willing to follow someone who declares their authority. It’s time to open up what it means to have authority. This passage from Douglas Adams says it best:

“The major problem—one of the major problems, for there are several—one of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them.
To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.
To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.”

― Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

Help an unlikely leader take on the mantle of authority

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