PREFACE BY JON MOSCONE
Let’s face it: we have a problem. It’s not that we don’t see the numbers declining, or the funding priorities shifting, or the world passing us by. The problem is: what do we do?
This problem is a question of relevance, and it is a question that drives me in every way. When I became artistic director of California Shakespeare Theater in the Bay Area in 2000, I was really fresh. I promised the Board of Trustees that I could never deliver excellence, but that I could deliver passion and the attempt at authenticity. And I did. I believed, and still do, that we tell our own stories when we tell the stories of Shakespeare and other classic writers. It is through our personal lenses that we read, interpret, and communicate the words. I gave the stage to artists who had bold personal stories to communicate.
It worked. Cal Shakes mattered a lot to the people it mattered to. Our subscription renewal rates were always about 15% higher than the national average. People came back, and they told their friends to come.
And then at one point, I saw that despite all the success we had earned with the constituencies we held close, despite the open doors we held for so many people, we had almost zero relevance to communi- ties of color. Individuals yes, but communities, no. Not on terms other than those we had proscribed. So we tried to make a new promise to matter more to more people. We ventured to find out if we could mean anything to people in Oakland through an engagement process around a new play to be written locating Hamlet’s Elsinore in the kingdom of drugs that ravaged so many people and so much of a city in the late 1980s.
We owned our lack of credibility in these new communities. We partnered wisely, listened more than we talked, and brought new people close into the process of writing and performing the piece. It premiered in 2006 at San Francisco’s Intersection for the Arts and its resident company, Campo Santo. We cracked open a door to classical theater that was invisible, and therefore impossible to find, for people who had never set foot in our space.
Yet after that, they still didn’t. We didn’t make good on the promise that Cal Shakes was going to include stories that mattered to more people. That was the new promise I made, and I had a hard time making good on it.
We tried, moved forward, and fell back. We stood by the door unsure how wide open it should swing. In 2009, Cal Shakes presented a play by a black author, Zora Neale Hurston, Spunk, that brought the Harlem Renaissance to the hills of Orinda, California. It was a big hit critically and with audiences, many new to our venue. Once a year, we produced a play specifically for audiences of color, and we began to crack open new relationships, new conversations, and new relevance. Then, in 2011, we presented a Shakespeare play, The Winter’s Tale, directed by and cast entirely with artists of color. Our longtime audience rebelled. It broke open a new conversation with key stakeholders and board members, who saw the shift in relevance away from them.
On the surface, programming Shakespeare the way I did may looked like a typical move for a typical theater to attract an audience (and perhaps funders) it had decided it should/needed to/desired to reach. Which made it not groundbreaking in the least. But deep down there was something more happening. A current way underground the surface of our stage had been tapped, and a nerve had been hit. I found myself in conversations about race and privilege I never thought I’d have. My belief in giving artists the space to tell their stories through Shakespeare was put to a new test, not by the artists, or by myself, but by a shifting audience.
I had to work anew to bring longtime supporters along as we started mattering more to new people. We were no longer just relevant to our culturally upbeat, politically engaged, educated and mostly white audience—we in fact took a risk in losing some of that relevance. For some, I broke a promise I didn’t even know I made.
When I figured this out, and I saw how far we had to go, and what a beautiful, necessary and difficult journey it was going to be, I knew it was time to pass the baton to someone smarter about all this and as fresh as I was the day I got there 15 years before.
The challenge of relevance is complex and deep. Even though my focus has now shifted—to turning art into civic action at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts—the challenge remains the same. How to make honest promises to new people—and keep them. The journey to unlock the doors of our great big institution to let people in to experience and participate in work that matters to them has made me even more alive to the question of relevance than I ever thought possible.
All of us in the world of service—art, culture, religion, spirituality, community—our work has meaning. Relevance enables us to ignite and reignite that meaning. Relevance helps us find the key to unlock people’s desire for it, and it gives them reasons to come in and partner with us.
If you are looking into the space of meaning and wondering why you can’t get in, or looking out onto the street from that space and wondering why they are not coming, then this is the book that you must read, right now, and maybe twice.
This book will bring power to your struggle for relevance. It won’t solve your problems for you. It will help you figure out how to be alive to the question of relevance and meaning in your work. Which is the surest route, I believe, to find answers.