Random thoughts about watching, working and living in the arts, from HMS co-founder and executive producer Scott Silberstein.
It's been several weeks since I last blogged, barely able to contain my rage after the release of the Access Hollywood tape that, somehow, did not manage to derail Donald Trump's presidential aspirations. It's been an excruciating stretch of time since then, where my words have failed me and my actions have seemed to me to be inconsequential relative to the hellstorm that I've feared will come to pass sometime after January 20.
I'm calmer now than I was then, and I'm pretty sure it's because in the last month or so, I've seen sixteen stage productions, gone to five movies (one of them four times -- a "Star Wars" movie will have that effect on me), read three books, listened to twenty or so new albums, gone to four museums and hung out with a whole lot of creative and artistic people.
It took a lot of art immersion therapy, but I feel like I finally have my feet back on the ground. Being around that much beauty, appreciating the extraordinary collaborations each work of art required and reminding myself that partaking in art is just as important as making it made me realize that, by hanging on to fear and anger as tightly as I have and by dwelling on the past and the future rather than the present, I was betraying every liberal bone in my body.
My favorite definition of “liberal” is “willing to respect or accept behavior or opinions different from one's own.” There's a lot that's been said and done that I cannot respect, but that definition said I could either respect OR accept, and so I accept what's happened as real, something on which I can build, and something from which I can move forward. Finally, I've been able to find a way and a place to use those all-important words born from the world of improvisation: "Yes and." Which, come to think of it, is now my new favorite definition of the word "liberal."
My favorite ways to be a liberal "yes-and-er" are to be an artist, an audience member and an arts advocate. In some way, no matter who you voted for, chances are that you, too, partake in one or more of these wildly liberal activities, all the time. You go to the movies, right? You watch TV, you read a book, you see a show, you listen to some music, you admire some fashion, you look at a building and think, wow, that's cool. And it is. All of it is very, very cool. And very liberal of you, opening yourself up to something new and beautiful like that. Well done.
Chances are that whatever you did, you loved it, and you'll do it again, and again. We’re all liberal that way, and it doesn’t matter if our next trip to a theater is to see “Rogue One” or “Hamilton,” we want to come out of it more excited and energized than we were going in. Transformed. Liberated, if you will.
That's what the arts are all about. And our incoming President, whom I and many others would call neither liberal nor conservative, says and does a lot of things that appear to stand against those things which the arts (and by extension all of us, as living, breathing human beings) stand for. Mr. Trump’s words and tweets about “Hamilton,” “Saturday Night Live,” the media at large and civil protests in general carry with them dangerous implications -- for all fields, and all countries. Whether his attacks on free speech and creative expression were genuine or simply a means of misdirection away from other pressing issues, they are an ominous and lazily crafted group of words to be coming from any democratic leader, let along the incoming President of the United States.
And yet I must stand in defense of Mr. Trump’s right to say them. That’s the artsy thing to do. It’s also the American thing to do.
Well... it's a half-artsy, half-American thing to do. At this point I've only listened. I haven't responded. I haven't said "and." And I will not allow myself to be someone who simply says "yes" to these words and ideas.
So... the "and."
In the stirring finale to Aaron Sorkin’s spectacularly written film “The American President,” Michael Douglas, portraying President Andrew Shepard (my second favorite fictional president after, of course, “The West Wing’s” Jed Bartlet), offers the kind of speech that I wish more people with microphones -- pundits, Republicans and Democrats alike -- had offered. Shepard, having been repeatedly provoked by a challenger for the presidency, finally decides that no one puts Andy in a corner.
“America isn't easy," he says. "America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, 'cause it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say, you want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can't just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the land of the free.”
When the fictional President Shepard pushes back on his fictional opponent Senator Rumson, he might as well be talking about the very real President-Elect Trump. "We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them, and whatever your particular problem is, Bob Rumson is not in the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things and two things only: making us afraid of it and telling you who's to blame for it.”
I like to think in most parts of the world, we operate differently than Senator Rumson and President-Elect Trump. Certainly we do in the arts worlds, where, bereft of significant fame and money, most of us do the work for the only reason left: because we love it, and because so does almost everyone else.
Sure, people have their own tastes. Some prefer movies to musicals, or books to sculpture, in the same way that some sports fans prefer baseball to football. Some music lovers think that rock isn't music at all, in the same way that some football fans think that what we Americans watch on autumn Sundays isn't really football. That's all fine -- at least we love something. In the end, whether your big thing this year was the "Game of Thrones," the “Gilmore Girls” reunion, the new Anne Patchett novel, the new Chance The Rapper album or the Shakespeare 400 festival, you’re an arts lover.
We all are.
Plus (and this can’t possibly be said enough), by any measure, be it economic, educational, social and cultural, any investment in the arts pays off exponentially for individuals, communities, states and countries (that they also unite us, touch our souls, create community, define humanity, explore our weakness, challenge our strengths, entertain, enlighten and promote the best possible behavior among people of all sizes, shapes, ages, nations, creeds, colors and political affiliations is a nice little side benefit). Bottom line: the arts practically invented the win-win scenario.
This is not to be confused with the “winning” that the President-Elect likes to talk about. His kind involves other people losing, which is usually unnecessary; and, according to him, it's going to happen so often that it will, in his own words, become “boring,” which is just weird.
“We’re going to win,” he says. “We’ll have so much winning.” “We’ll win everything.” To borrow from “The Princess Bride,” Mr. Trump, you use that word a lot. I do not think it means what you think it means.
The truth is, sir, that it's here within the arts that the lives of most people in the world are reflected and portrayed with far more honesty than anything I’ve ever seen you describe or any lifestyle I've seen you inhabit. Like most folks, and unlike you, we’re too busy working and caring for our families, friends and neighbors to spend a lot of time talking or thinking about "winning." In fact, the word “winning,” as you use it, doesn’t mean much to us. (And I know you're very enamored of award shows, but that’s other people talking about and evaluating the arts, and no, they don’t know what "winning" means, either.)
We work with and for each other, with a very simple and beautiful goal, which is to create things that will make people’s lives more interesting and beautiful. And if we have a hope for ourselves, it's that the work they've seen us create leaves them feeling inspired and empowered to go back to their lives with that much more energy, empathy and compassion, and that maybe they'll appreciate it enough to come back and let us do it again.
You seem to love outcomes, Mr. Trump, but we're more interested in a process (over which we have at least a little control, by choosing who we spend time with) than an outcome (over which we realize we have relatively little control, and from which we work hard to avoid getting too attached).
That’s why “win-win” makes so much more sense to us than “winners" and "losers.” That’s why we’re liberated to welcome the new, follow the fear, wade through the unknown, embrace the different, confront the awful, and overwhelm it with the power of good.
Which is why, Mr. Trump, unnerving as we find you, we’re rooting for you. As Americans and as artists, that’s what we do: root for people. When we write and tell our stories, we want all our characters to be interesting, and we want everyone in our audience to empathize with them. Even -- sometimes especially -- our antagonists, through whom we can explore our dark sides. We want them, at some level, to evolve, so that we can offer them, and thus ourselves, forgiveness and redemption. We did it for Darth Vader, Ebenezer Scrooge and The Grinch, so I bet we can do it for you -- if you're up to the challenge.
But don’t cross us or take us for granted; the Voldemorts, Saurons and Wicked Witches of the world stuck to their guns, and while they may have had their brief moments of power and control, in the end, they lost everything, as their kind always does. We learned a lot from them too, but they were obliterated. And while a lot of us don't like what you're about, we're not actually hoping for your obliteration. That would likely be bad for all of us. We'd much rather you be visited by three ghosts and wake up a better man, have your heart grow three sizes and take off the helmet to look upon us with your own eyes.
Should you be tempted to dismiss these stories as mere frivolous fantasy, Mr. Trump, may I advise you, for your own good... don't. Stories are the map of the human experience. They are the guide books to our fears, hopes, dreams and ideals. They are our sources of inspiration and our cautionary tales. They offer understanding, compassion, reflection and forgiveness. They allow us to go to the darkest of places, and survive them. They invite us to think more about our own stories, and how we might tell them better. And they offer us something that you have thus far failed to offer: hope.
The difference between us, Mr. President-Elect, isn't that you have power and we don't. It's that we have hope and you don't.
We acknowledge your right to be a bad storyteller, and to tell a bad story badly. In fact we appreciate it, not because we like what you say or how you say it, but because you remind us that there has never been a greater need for the good stories, told well, by the good storytellers.
Having done what President Shepard told us to do -- having felt our blood boil, and having defended at the top of our voice your right to say at the top of yours that which makes us feel crazy, frightened and angry -- we are coming to terms with what happens in the absence of the good story, when good storytellers are silenced or mute, and how pressing is the need for us to get back to work. And rest assured, a bunch of us are about to start taking our hope out for a spin and see what it can do.
Join us. Don’t join us. It's entirely up to you. Whatever you decide, we're back. And we’re not just starting a new chapter. We’re writing a new book.
Everyone ready? Then we’ll begin.
"Once upon a time…"