Purpose Statements

A post from Don Hall today has, as per usual, got me a-thinkin'. In that post, and the ensuing comments section, there's some discussion of some noble theatrical endeavors (this is a continuation of a discussion that's been going on for awhile). That word is a little slippery to me when it comes to using it as an adjective for creative expression. It almost feels a little removed. I agree that firefighters and teachers are noble - are artists, too? As vital as I feel we are to society, are we in the same category as doctors? I don't know about that, but another way of getting at what I see to be the point is asking of theatre "To What Purpose?"

I've been feeling like a dog with a bone when it comes to this question - with my own work, and the work of my peers. Yeah, that play's kinda cool - but to what purpose? Of course that company can afford to replicate the whole of ancient Mesopotamia on stage, and I guess it's neat to look at, but to what purpose? Yes, that sex scene is at least mildly amusing and maybe a teeny bit arousing and in other circumstances I would have no problem with that actor removing his shirt, but to what purpose? And so on. I'm not a huge fan of the Because We Can School of Theatre, and I'm wondering if these lean economic times might teach us all a lesson in realigning our priorities and interrogating our ideas. Am I the poster child for always having the world's most clear and unassailable purpose for my work? Not yet. Do I have work in my future that will likely have a less than crystalized raison d'etre? You betcha. Doesn't make me want that clarity any less.

The work that Don's post refers to, as well as the "This American Life" Hamlet mentioned in the comments section, answer the question "to what purpose?" with precision. I would love to see more work like this, find more ways in which the work we do can directly impact and improve the lives of those around us - the marginalized, those without dominant voices, the young, the elderly - bring those programs on, I'd like to be involved. But we can also take the work we're doing now and clarify our intentions, our goals, our purpose in creating that art.

And I'm not saying that everything we produce has to be full of Message Writ Large. Sometimes the purpose of a piece is to entertain, to provide escape, to show us what fools these mortals be (oh come on, I get one - especially since I just read the article about the new Shakespeare portrait), but own that purpose. Revel in it. Declaring that your show is simply an entertainment doesn't make it worth any less; I would argue that that step makes it worth even more.

On 848, something the dueling critics said when talking about Chicago theatre in the current and forthcoming economies really struck me. The theatres that don't find their niches, the ones that can't succinctly articulate their missions - those are the ones that won't be with us on the other side. That seems to me a lot like having an answer to this question. My hope is that this crisis - gone unwasted - will help us clarify, prioritize, find our purposes in the new world into which we're being thrust.


  1. Hey Jess,

    I just discovered your blog, and although I'm six weeks late to comment on this post, I'd like to chime in on two possibly incongruous quotes from Joseph Campbell that keep me from becoming a plumber. The first:

    "The role of the artist I now understood as that of revealing through the world-surfaces the implicit forms of the soul..."

    That one seems a little bit ponderous, doesn't it? How self-important must one be to define the artist thus and still call oneself an artist! Then, though, there's the second:

    "People say that what we're all seeking is a meaning for life... I think that what we're really seeking is an experience of being alive..."

    If that's an implicit form of the soul, then there's no question in my mind of the nobility or the purpose of what we do.

    Great blog!


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