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Thoughts about watching, working and living in the arts, from HMS co-founder, executive producer and arts advocate Scott Silberstein.

January 27, 2021


In the absence of the good story told well by the good storyteller, we will fall prey to the bad story, even when told poorly by the bad one. Every time.

As the Biden-Harris administration begins its journey and a new era dawns for America and the world it inhabits, Jonathan Capehart describes this moment as "the beginning of the middle."

That's an insightful way to describe a time of hope around which swirls anxiety and uncertainty. The beginning of this chapter won't make our country more civil, informed or empathic overnight, but it does provide an opportunity to explore how we can better ourselves and our communities and improve the way we listen and respond to each other.

As a citizen, buoyed by the stable and thoughtful leadership taking the reins this week, I am hopeful.

As an arts advocate, it was exhilarating to see the inauguration and its surrounding festivities populated by the likes of Amanda Gorman, Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Cynthia Erivo, Common, Mumu Fresh, the Howard Gospel Choir, Renée Fleming, J'Nai Bridges, Lawrence Brownlee, Soloman Howard, Ryan McKinny, Eric Owens, and Bruce Springsteen, whose famous pre-election anti-Trump meditation began with the memorable phrase "there is no art in this White House" and who opened Wednesday night's "Celebrating America" multi-network TV special by singing "Land of Hope and Dreams" in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

I still feel unsettled, though.

As Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Isabel Wilkerson tweeted this morning, "Just now starting to realize the emotional toll, the psychic weight we have carried, what it does to the spirit to hold your breath for this long."

I appreciate that sentiment, because to be honest, I still feel battered. We have been traumatized as a nation, not just on January 6 but for the more than four years prior to it. As any trauma survivor will tell you, recovering and processing takes time.

And when I consider where we go from here as arts advocates, I am daunted.

I believe in our new government's capacity to address the chaos the previous administration left behind, but there is so much cleaning up to do and I fear that in the face of other enormous challenges, our arts advocacy interests could be rendered frivolous, our collective efforts fruitless.

And so it feels strange to simply get back to the business of sending you updates on arts news and legislative concerns without first reckoning with these murky feelings and addressing this uncertain reality.

Inspired by President Biden and Vice-President Harris' capacity for peaceful confrontation of our challenges, and by the inaugural artists' powerfully conveyed reflections on what makes us a better nation, today I'll share with you my thoughts on moving forward together with unity and intention. Think of this as a Ted Talk, delivered from my inner optimistic arts advocate to my inner exhausted one.

Perhaps it will speak to you, too. And perhaps then we'll all exhale together, then take a breath of fresh and invigorating air and hunker down to do the work that so desperately needs to be done.

Why does it feel like this?

The third episode of The West Wing’s brilliant second season takes place in the weeks leading up to the midterm elections and following an assassination attempt on President Bartlett’s body man, Charlie Young, who was targeted by white supremacists for dating the President’s daughter while black.

Like most of the White House staff, Communications Director Toby Ziegler is anguished by what he’s seen.

“Why does it feel like this?” he asks the President. “I've seen shootings before.”

“It wasn't a shooting, Toby,” Bartlett replies. “It was a lynching. They tried to lynch Charlie right in front of our eyes. Can you believe that?”

Three weeks after the violent insurrection at the Capitol building and one week after the peaceful and beautuful transfer of power to the new administration, I’m still not concentrating, working, eating or sleeping especially well.

Why does it feel like this? I’ve seen protests before.

Because it wasn’t a protest. It was a lynching. They tried to lynch America, and Americans, right in front of our eyes.

Can you believe that?

Since that day, many of our leaders, especially President Biden and Vice-President Harris, have called for long overdue reckonings. I am grateful to them for that.

Yet we still hear disingenuous pontifications from powerful and influential people about moving on, as if unity and healing is possible without accountability or responsibility, infuriating if unsurprising responses from enablers of a now-ex-President with his own history of assaults without consequences.

Even at this new dawn, I am left by these dissonances feeling stripped of agency and power, and I ask myself:

If we can’t hold people accountable for an attack on the People’s House, how can we expect to return to those same halls and be given serious consideration as we advocate for the arts?

Why should we keep trying?

Who will come with us?

Who will listen?

"We need you now more than ever."

Thirteen days before President Trump will take the oath of office, Congresswomen Jan Schakowsky, my terrific Representative here in the Illinois 9^th, holds a rally at the Broadway Armory.

Jan and I have been meeting since 2011 to discuss the arts and arts legislation. She’s not only a responsible and inspiring representative, she's a brilliant human.

Her powerful and energizing rally is about one thing, the most important thing, the only thing: urging Americans to stand against soon-to-be President Trump’s racist, divisive rhetoric and work harder than ever to restore dignity the White House and unity to America. A prescient politician, she knows what’s coming on January 20th.

When she finishes her speech and descends from the stage, she approaches me, takes my coat by the lapels, and says:

“You guys in the arts. We need you more than ever now.”
I am exhilarated by that call to action.

Now I have to unpack it and answer it.'

Make The Movie.

It's late September, 2018, and I'm back in Washington with the Broadway League's Legislative Council. My last meeting of the day is with Congresswoman Schakowsky and her Chief of Staff.

Jan asks for my perspective on what happened in and since the election. She seems to be asking for a story, and I came up with this.

If in 2016 Republicans and Democrats were in the business of making movies instead of trying to get Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton into the White House, GOP Pictures would have produced Transformers 7.

It would have sucked. But there would have been robots, explosions, sexy movie stars and a bunch of T7 hats, t-shirts and action figures available online and in the lobby. The movie would have played 7 of the 13 screens at the local cineplex, and audiences would have been thrilled that they had a movie, any movie, to take their minds off their troubles on a hot summer day.

Democratic Party Films, on the other hand, would have announced that they’d acquired the rights to the Star Wars, DC, Marvel, Disney, Star Trek, Harry Potter and Indiana Jones franchises and posted their plans to release a series of blockbuster films on their website.

What more, they would have asked, could audiences have wanted?

The movie.

We wanted you to make the movie.

Transformers 7 didn’t top the 2016 political box office because it was the better movie. It topped it because it was the only movie.

Excellent as their intentions were, Democratic Party Films didn’t comprehend that people will not – literally cannot – like a movie you don’t make.

Hillary Clinton is arguably the most qualified person to ever run for the office, and Donald Trump is inarguably the least. There was Russia, there was misogyny, and there were three million more votes for Clinton than for Trump.

So this is less about the candidates themselves than it is about the machinery around them and the machinists’ understanding of how narratives inspire people. Repelled as I was by story peddled by Republicans, I was equally disappointed that given opportunities to tell better tales, Democrats repeatedly fouled off the pitch.

But things shifted in 2020. GOP Pictures' obsequious producers were too terrified to speak truth to the power of the increasingly unstable star of their show, preventing them from seeing that a majority of the public doesn't want Transformers 8 and find its star revolting.

Democratic Party Films, after vetting a diverse array of scripts, directors and stars, surprised audiences (and perhaps themselves) by going with a reboot of Raiders of the Lost Ark. What they delivered was something closer to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, creakier and less exciting than many had hoped perhaps, but a movie nevertheless, one made with the best intentions and admirable craftsmanship, filled with genuine comforts and familiar beats, and featuring a leading man that audiences liked and trusted.

Happily, that strategy worked – although I would contend that what America really needed was a double feature of Black Panther and Wonder Woman. Perhaps, in Kamala Harris, we got both.

In 2020, there were two movies, and the one with the better story won the day.

Story is everything. In the absence of a good story told well by a good storyteller, the bad story, even when told poorly by a bad one, wins every time.

There is light.

Having re-rooted myself in the power of story, I revisit the questions I asked myself at the top.

And curiously, I realize I was more hopeful than I thought.

I notice that I didn't ask “if” we should go on. I asked “how." That must mean that, deep down, I know that arts advocacy work is always going to be important, and I'm not going to give up on it. Ever.

I asked “why” I'm doing it, not because I think advocacy is a fool's errand but because it's a noble one, and because I am compelled to clarify for myself and others what we're trying to accomplish.

And I asked "who will I do this with" to remind myself, and you, that I am determined to rally the troops and, in your good company, fight the good fight.

Within our ranks, we may face divisive challenges of our own. Some of us prefer to appeal to hearts and minds and speak of art for arts’ sake; others feel it’s more effective to focus on the arts’ utilitarian betterment of economy, education, health care, technology and media.

The moment calls not for "either or" but for "both and."

We can inspire with one approach and call to action with the second, effectively declaring the arts to be a spectacularly effective way for us to be better people building a better world, one filled with more empathy, harmony, community and thoughtful expression.

For what better way to learn how to listen openly, respond generously and achieve empathy than by placing ourselves directly into the lives of others, as theater invites and requires?

What better way to embrace harmony and understand dissonance, as music allows and inspires?

What better way to see how communities draw the best from rugged individuals in order to create powerful communities, as dance demonstrates and celebrates?

And who wouldn’t prefer a well-written book, poem or exquisitely crafted piece of art than hear another report about someone who felt that their only way to express themselves was through hatred or violence?

Let these be our rallying cries.

Let them be implied in all we do and explicitly declared every chance we can get.

Let us remind ourselves, and each other, of the importance and vitality of the good stories, so that when we talk to those in power and engage with those we want to persuade, we can say with confidence, "Friends, whatever interests you, the arts have a story you want. Whatever drives you, the arts have an idea you need."

That is how we create a more beautiful world, make better humans and form a more perfect union – better yet, as the great Amanda Gorman put it, a more purposeful one.

OK. Now I’m ready to get back to work.

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