Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Why work in the United States (part II)

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Contributed by Jake Witlen


I feel there can be no better lead in than Gabriella's last po
st than to start one of my own -- from Berlin as a recent New York transplant. I spent nearly 12 years in New York (I didn't stop counting), and during that time was as equally as inspired as I was scared. September 11 was a profound moment for me, and like many others around the world, it would shape the way I saw the World forever.

After those events, where New Yorkers were at once humbled and brought together, I saw a profound shift in "my" city. New York had always been a beacon of hope, of intelligence, of the future for me. Artists and intellectuals had for generations found themselves in the crossroads of this tiny island; and cultural, economic, and innovative life flourished because of it.

But then the world shifted underneath us. Through decades of government dismantling of arts funding (if you could say that we ever had such a thing in the States), coupled with a new coup of radicals, the "American Dream" had been systematically chipped away, and the foundations of what it takes to make work became ever more difficult to lay as we struggled simply to stay afloat and repay our debts.

No one becomes a theatre artist because they want to get rich. Those that do migrate to film, or end up becoming lawyers. Those of us who create because there is an innate need to create are subsisted in other ways. The audiences feed us, the collaborations, the camaraderie. We become theatre artists to share an idea, and engage in a dialogue between actor and audience. Regardless of genre, everyone who shares a passion for the theatre has at some point passed through a realization that they wanted to tell a story in front of live human beings. It is the foundation of our form.

But New York today is in a delicate place to live these types of ideals. The costs of space and goods have driven us out -- both as theatre makers and as residents. For the two years I lived in New York prior to 9/11, I was fortunate enough to have a tiny hovel of an apartment in the West Village. In this place, I would rub elbows everyday with artists I looked up to -- both famous and not so famous -- but literally bumped up against them. The creative energy of the neighborhood was palpable, and I believe it led people to create more and better work. After September 11, I was driven from my West Village apartment as real estate prices ballooned, soon migrated to the Lower East Side, and finally resettled in Park Slope, where I ended up staying for the last five years.

I love the city -- but the community that I knew from the Village had dissipated -- and with it, a core piece of what I think has always made New York special. We left to go our separate ways in Bushwick and Williamsbug, Jackson Heights and Lefferts Gardens. We could no longer communicate with each other in the physical way that had driven the city for a century or more in the bars of SoHo, the East Village and the West Village before it. Sure, we had become more "connected" on the Internet (here you are reading this), but you and I don't know each other. I'm writing into a void for all I know.

Berlin is a place that exists like New York did in the 70s and 80s. It's raw. It's cheap. It's active. People don't talk about making things here -- they make them. There's a spirit of sharing -- from the biggest State theatre to the lowest "free" theatre group. The social contract has connected the people to the community and invited them to share in the dialogue. And it's happening. Gabriella is right that it is a lifestyle-- just as Italy is a lifestyle -- but both push the boundaries of our humanity by inviting sharing and togetherness (Italians around a table with food, Germans around the beer stein with philosophy and ideas). There isn't an innate need to "generate and replicate" work as there is in New York/America's consumeristic view; instead, the work's core is fed with a desire to ask difficult questions that have no answers. And who risk failure because the outcome is not nearly as dire economically here. As a matter of fact, government funding is handed out BASED on the willingness to explore and fail, rather than our Producer driven model where innovation is shunned simply because it's "unknown" factor.

I applaud Gabriella for her desire to stay in New York and continue engaging in the dialogue, and here I amplify her point -- DO SOMETHING. Get out and make it happen. Fight those who will take away our voices simply by holding back the dollars it takes to make our work. MAKE IT. Stand up and protest the State and Federal funds that are going to get cut! And when they get cut anyway, take to the streets and make MORE art. Do it for nothing! Do it with paint! Or sound! Or movement! But DO it.

And if you find that economic times have you down and you can't even find a way to do it anymore -- come to a place where money and space are not your daily concerns, and audiences are more angry if there isn't something that motivates them to find new ways to view the world around them.

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Jake Witlen is a theatre/video director based between Brooklyn and Berlin. He is a founding member of The Internationalists, a collective of directors from around the world, dedicated to creating an open, sustainable and more interactive global theatre. Their work has been seen online in over 61 countries, and been presented live in New York, London, Paris, Berlin and Sydney. Last year, Jake directed a production of Around the World with live performances between New York and Berlin that was chosen by Zitty magazine as a top pick of 2010. In the US he has directed new work by Adam Rapp (Williamstown), Eric Pfeffinger (Actors Theatre of Louisville), Joy Tomasko (Around the World/Odyssey projects), Eric Sanders (Brick, Ohio), and designed video for productions at 3-Legged Dog, HERE, PS122 etc.

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